In the policy conversations surrounding higher education, the proposals often mentioned are ones aimed at reducing the cost of college. It’s the problem that dominates the headlines and even the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary. Reducing the cost of college is certainly an issue worth tackling, but other issues in higher education are also in need of fixing. So here’s a radical idea policy makers should embrace: to really help the college-going students of today, improve their access to high-quality, affordable child care.
Today’s college students aren’t the stereotypical 18-year-old students depicted in movies and often by the media. Their parents aren’t all packing up their things and dropping them off at flagships universities with a large quad where they’ll lounge for four years. In fact, 64% of college students work and 40%even work full-time. About half of students are financially independent of their parents and a quarter of college students even have children or other dependents of their own. Ensuring a quarter of students have access to high-quality, affordable child care would ensure this population has the opportunity to pursue their studies and put them on a more stable path to graduation.
And this is a problem worth addressing. Recent research found that student parents experience “time poverty” where they do not have sufficient time to dedicate to their education due to the demands of parenting—even though they have higher GPAs on average. This study found that their lack of both quantity and quality of time for education had a significant and direct impact on their ability to complete their degree. And that was compared to peers similar to them. Allowing these students to free up their time—while providing their children with such an important developmental opportunity—can set these families up for success long term.
We already know investing in child care and early education is one that pays off, both financially and for the enrichment of children’s lives. Publicly-funded programs have shown a short-term return on investment by making the children more prepared to enter kindergarten. Investments in child care and early education have also shown long-term payoffs with students being more likely to graduate high school and even earning more than their peers who didn’t enroll. Professor James Heckman of the University of Chicago has found a “13 percent return on investment for comprehensive, high-quality, birth-to-five early education.” And this return considers several areas like health, income and IQ, among others.
Even though the 2020 primary policy discussions in education have centered around higher education, some candidates have proposals to improve access to child care. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and presidential candidateJulián Castro introduced a broad education plan. He proposed universal pre-K education for 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as expanding Early Head Start. Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act as part of her presidential policy roll-out. The plan would work to make child care more affordable by limiting the amount a family would pay to 7% of their income. Warren’s plan also provides funding to establish a network of providers to increase access and work to ensure quality.
And those are just two of the plans. Many other candidates have introduced plans of their own to address this issue. Six of the senators running for president—Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren—are also co-sponsors of Senator Patty Murray’s Child Care for Working Families Act, which works to make child care more affordable and accessible. Congressmen Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton are also co-sponsors of the House version. There’s options on the table and many are likely to make a positive impact in the lives of student parents and children across the country.
Increasing access to high-quality and affordable child care could be game changing for student parents, while also helping millions of other Americans. With this population making up such a large portion of the college-going population, it is important policymakers and presidential candidates keep them in mind when thinking of ways to improve higher education. A significant investment—with needed quality assurance—would be a huge benefit to millions of children in America. And by making their college years easier—and improving the development of their children—this kind of policy could provide student parents the needed stability to their families for years by increasing the likelihood that these 24% of college students leave with a degree in hand.