More than 2 million community college students in the United States are parents of children under 18. Student parents benefit from large earnings gains once earning their degree; community colleges can support their graduation by providing services to help balance family and school responsibilities.

By Rachel Karp and Lindsey Reichlin Cruse 

Originally posted on ACCT Now: Perspectives

More than 2 million community college students in the United States are parents of children under 18. Seventy percent of these parents are mothers, and many of these mothers are women of color.

The majority of student parents live in or near poverty, making them especially likely to benefit from the earning gains experienced by college graduates. These benefits are especially important for single mother students, who make up over half of all student mothers. New researchfrom the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) finds that, on average, single mothers with AA degrees who work full-time, year-round, earn $8,000 more each year, and over $330,000 more over their lifetimes, than they would have with only a high school diploma. These increased earnings lead to a substantial return to single mothers’ investment in community college: for every $1 a single mother graduate spends on earning an associate degree, her family gets back $16.45.

Despite the real benefits associated with college attainment, only 28 percent of first-time, beginning student parents in community college graduate with a degree or certificate within six years of enrollment.

Student parents face several challenges that make it hard for them to graduate. They face numerous demands on their time, which include caring for children and often, holding a job, in addition to attending classes and completing coursework. Two-thirds of student parents in community college work, which research has shown can disrupt degree completion. Caregiving takes up substantial time as well, with roughly a quarter of women in community college reporting that they spend 30 hours or more each week providing care to dependents, and more than four in ten who live with dependents saying that their care obligations are likely to cause them to drop out of school. Affordable, reliable child care is essential to helping student parents balance these time demands, but quality care can be expensive, and the number of community colleges with on-campus child care has declined as the number of student parents in community college has increased.

What can community colleges do to help their student parents persist and graduate?

1) Establish campus programs and collaborate with community service providers to give student parents access to resources they need to stay in school.

The Family Resource Center (FRC) at Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC) works with college and community groups to offer services such as after-school child care; infant and toddler play groups; diapers, baby wipes, and formula; academic counseling; and food and housing assistance. FRC also provides holistic family supports to students enrolled in the college’s workforce training academies through its Strengthening Working Families program.

2) Partner with the local early care and education community to help student parents find child care that meets their needs.

At Lane Community College in Oregon, student parents can find child care through a free referral service provided on-campus. Quality Care Connections helps parents identify child care options, in addition to providing a variety of free parenting supports and resources for free over thephone, through its statewide 211 Child Care Referral phone line,online, and in-person on campus.

3) Collect data on students’ parent status to better understand parents’ college needs and outcomes.

Monroe Community College (MCC) in New York collects data on parent status through a survey conducted every semester during course registration. MCC matches those data with data from its campus child care center, allowing for a recent IWPR analysis, which found that use of the center increased MCC student parents’ likelihood of returning to school the following year. The analysis also found that using the center more than tripled student parents’ chances of on-time graduation.

4) Promote federal, state, and local strategies to improve the availability of affordable child care.

Community college leaders can share information with policymakers on students’ need for child care and their experiences with programs like the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program, the only source of federal funding that supports low-income college students’ access to child care. They can also provide expert guidance to policymakers on how removing work requirements and other restrictions would expand students’ access to child care assistance, which can help low-income parents pay for child care while pursuing postsecondary education.