The Department of Education is Pulling the Rug out from Under Student Parents
In order to attend her 8 a.m. class at Northampton Community College in Tannersville, Pennsylvania, Joeann Gerard must take the 7:30 a.m. bus with her four-year-old daughter, Jelena. Upon arrival, Joeann, a 38-year-old business management student, drops Jelena off at Northampton’s Hannig Family Children’s Center, a childcare facility with an art-based curriculum that fosters cognitive, physical, and social/emotional growth, and creative expression for children from six weeks old to kindergarten entry.
Classes take up most of Joeann Gerard’s afternoon. Whatever free time she does have is spent on homework. If Gerard’s not studying, it’s because she’s clocking in on her four-hour cashier shift at Weiss grocery store, where she works part-time. As a full-time student and single mom of two daughters, Gerard’s weekly paycheck, which never exceeds $180, is immediately eaten up by rent, tuition, school supplies, groceries, household necessities, and utilities.
“You can’t tell your kids, ‘Unfortunately, we don’t have food to eat today because I have to pay for your childcare,'” Gerard says.
Gerard is not alone in her struggles. A 2014 report by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research found that about 4.8 million, or a quarter of all college students in the United States, juggle parenthood and schoolwork. And they face staggering barriers to success. As of 2015, only 31 percent of single mothers ages 25 and older held a college degree, compared with 54 percent of married mothers and 40 percent of women overall. Even when single mothers graduate, they are more likely to have more debt than both their non-parent and married mother peers. On average, single mothers who earn a bachelor’s degree carry nearly $30,000 in student debt one year after graduation—$4,800 more than women without children. Much of the debt accrued by single parents is a result of the high costs of childcare, without which they’d often be unable to graduate at all.
This year, Gerard qualified to receive help from the Childcare Access Means Parents in School Program grant (CCAMPIS)—a federally funded program supporting low-income student parents by providing campus-based childcare services. She was relieved to learn that she wouldn’t have to bury herself in more student loan debt to pay for her daughter’s childcare costs. Gerard says that, in Tannersville, it can cost up to $1,000 per month to pay for full-time childcare.
“Without CCAMPIS, I wouldn’t be able to go to school full-time and I definitely won’t be able to finish my degree in the time that I want to finish it,” Gerard says.
Based on IWPR’s report on CCAMPIS, student parents—especially those who are single like Gerard—face significant time barriers because of childcare.
Approximately 20 percent of parents (27 percent of women vs. 12 percent of men) commit more than 30 hours per week to dependent care. Based on Northampton’s internal tracking of CCAMPIS, nearly 100 percent of student parents say it was crucial to their ability to enroll and stay in school. At Northampton, 85 percent of CCAMPIS recipients persisted to the next semester, and 54 percent graduated with a degree or certificate within three years. IWPR also reports that CCAMPIS program participants have higher retention and completion rates than students on average, and excellent academic performance.
CCAMPIS was first established in 1998, thanks to lobbying from the National Coalition for Campus Children’s Center and the Children’s Defense Fund. At the time, the program garnered bipartisan support; by 2001, during the twilight of the Clinton administration, funding for the program peaked (at $25 million annually). Yet the CCAMPIS budget declined significantly in 2003 under the George W. Bush administration, to just $15 million. Since 2004, the student parent population grew by 30 percent. Even so, funding for CCAMPIS has remain unchanged, says Barbara Gault, the executive director of the IWPR.
CCAMPIS is a small program—its funding reaches just 80 college campuses throughout the country. Colleges applying must demonstrate a need for the funding (i.e. through student population demographic info) and outline how the money will be used for childcare services, either through subsidized or no-cost childcare.
“I did a public speaking competition. I am the secretary for Pan-African Club,” she says. “If childcare was a concern, I would not be able to do any of those things. I wouldn’t be able to find the time.”
The Trump administration does not seem to have plans to propose similar childcare funding, or alternatives for CCAMPIS. According to Department of Education press secretary Liz Hill, the administration doesn’t believe that subsidizing expenses associated with childcare is “consistent with the Federal Department of Education’s core mission.” Hill also mentioned via email that state and local level services can cover childcare as well as programs within the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Yet the Department of Education isn’t factoring in what it takes for student parents to qualify for childcare subsidies. In most situations, these requirements can be unattainable for the majority of parents, and especially single parents, who are studying. In New York, low-income student parents must clock a minimum of 17.5 hours per week at a job to qualify for assistance. Minimum number of work hours to qualify for childcare subsidies vary from state-to-state. Gault says research shows that these mandates can derail hardworking parents from accessing upward mobility through education.
“Working can be fine for students. But, for parents, because they are already spending so many hours doing childrearing, working can have a detrimental effect on their grades and ability to complete their degree,” she says. “There are often requirements associated with childcare subsidies that put almost impossible burdens on single mothers who are trying to get a college credential so they can stay out of poverty permanently. It’s a self-defeating set of policies.”
Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) and Patty Murray (D-Washington) understand the lack of support for the growing student-parent population. In August, they reintroduced the CCAMPIS Reauthorization Act, to not only protect the funding but increase it from $15 million to $67 million annually.
“The nearly five million college students who are also raising children already have enough to worry about,” Duckworth said in a press release. “We are introducing this legislation to help increase access to childcare services so student parents can focus on getting an education that will help them provide a better future for their families.”
The potential repeal of CCAMPIS doesn’t just have an immediate effect on the student parents unable to access childcare. A 2016 study on student parents’ access to higher education showed that the children of mothers who graduated from college are 9 percent more likely to enroll in college themselves, compared to kids whose mothers didn’t attend college. By leaving the future of the program in limbo, the Trump administration isn’t just pulling the rug out from under single parents now—it’s affecting the futures of generations to come.
To qualify for the grant, student parents must be enrolled in a degree or certificate program, have a minimum GPA of 2.5, and be Pell grant eligible. Still, schools receiving CCAMPIS funding say there’s often a wait list for eligible single parents, as well as for veterans raising children and low-income families hoping to benefit from subsidized or free childcare while pursuing their degrees. On average, Northampton is able to grant CCAMPIS to about 30 to 40 student parents each academic semester.
Most recent data shows that the student-parent population increased by 30 percent—about 1.1 million student parents—between 2004 and 2012. Yet despite the steady growth of parents pursuing higher education, the Trump administration—led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—has proposed ending CCAMPIS. When asked about the future of CCAMPIS under a new budget, a spokesperson from the Department of Education told Pacific Standard in an e-mail that the department was “in the process of preparing to conduct the peer review of applications for the fiscal year 2017 competition. … Funding for the program was not included in the President’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget.”
Without the subsidized or free childcare CCAMPIS offers, many student parents like Gerard will find it impossible to complete a degree without accruing significant student loan debt.
Vanessa Fleck, 27, is a culinary arts student at Northampton Community College and the married mother of a four-year-old son, seven-year-old daughter, and 16-year-old stepdaughter. Before starting school last February, Fleck was a specialized welder, but in 2015, her hand was lacerated by metal shavings while on a job. Unable to continue welding, Fleck returned to school to become a registered dietician. When Zuk notified Fleck that she was eligible to receive free on-campus childcare for her youngest son, tears of relief streamed down her cheeks.
While Fleck was in her welding career, her husband was a stay-at-home dad. But now that she’s back at school full-time, her husband is working as a fabricator in auto mechanics. Money remains tight for the single-income family.
“I don’t know what I would do without [CCAMPIS] so I can’t even imagine what a single mother who is working and going to school would do,” Fleck admits. “I would have to quit school if I didn’t have that assurance that my son has childcare that I can afford.”
For Gerard, the funding has even opened up opportunities to participate in academic competitions and extracurricular activities on campus, which are achievements that stand out on her resume.
Natalie Pattillo is a multimedia journalist and photographer. She received her master of science degree in journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of
Journalism in 2017. She reports on gender-based violence, gender politics, childcare and health-care access, food, and culture.
Co-published with Pacific Standard.