For the nearly four million undergraduate students with dependent children—including 2.7 million mothers—earning a college degree can make a life-changing difference in their family’s lifetime economic security. According to an unpublished Institute for Women’s Policy Research analysis of the Beginning Postsecondary Student Longitudinal Study, however, just 37 percent of parenting students earn a degree or certificate within six years—compared with nearly 60 percent of their peers without children.
The importance of a college education for securing living-wage employment has only been sharpened by the economic chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the pandemic has also exacerbated the complex juggling act that student parents normally perform between parenthood, school, and work, making it harder for many to make progress toward graduation.
Unprecedented job losses have made it harder for student parents to meet their families’ basic needs, which were already high to begin with. Child care closures have meant families have limited or no caregiving support to allow them to work or study. Transitions to remote learning for both children and parents have put increased pressure on student parents’ time and technological resources, especially since low income and rural families often rely on their schools for internet and computer access.
For student mothers of color, COVID-19 has presented a new layer of hardship on top of the racial inequity that helps to shape their experiences as women and mothers on college campuses. Black, Native American and Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women in college are the most likely to be raising children when compared with other female students. These student mothers, who were already disproportionately living with poverty-level incomes before the pandemic, are now also faced with disproportionate health and economic crises within their own families and communities.
Efforts to provide emergency support in light of COVID-19 have been welcome but inadequate. In addition to a range of provisions intended to assist U.S. families, the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act,” or CARES Act, included $6 billion in emergency aid for college students. This aid, which can help students cover housing, food, and child care costs, among other expenses, was an important first step. Confusion around who was eligible for and how to distribute the aid, however, delayed its distribution to the students and families who need it.
Bolder action is required to help student parents ensure their families’ well-being and continue to make progress toward their educational and professional goals. Specifically:
- Student parents, and other students and families with low incomes, need enhanced and ongoing emergency financial, food, and housing assistance.
- Work requirements should be suspended for college students and for families to receive public assistance, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) child care assistance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
- To recover and build a stronger care infrastructure for working and student parent families, dramatically increased investment in the child care and early learning system is needed, including in the Child Care Development Fund and the Head Start system, as well as campus-based child care and the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program, which provide invaluable services to student parents and their children.
- Policy and funding should be devoted to closing technological gaps, through expanded access to affordable or free broadband internet and technological resources necessary for remote learning and working.
- Increased funding for higher education, especially community colleges, open access and public institutions, and Minority Serving Institutions, is essential to make up for significant cuts to state higher education budgets and to stave off the closure of quality institutions.