Community Colleges Are Helping Mothers Go Back to School

May 16, 2013

“We are a good investment.”

That’s what LaKeisha Cook has to say about herself and other student moms at Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland. And Cook is right. David Leonhardt of the New York Times recently argued that, when it comes to a long-term solution for the lethargic labor market, “Nothing is likely to matter more than improving educational attainment.” And education for women — including women with children — correlates with higher employment rates, which increases job market participation and boosts the economy. What’s more, having a college-educated mother also improves educational outcomes for children.

mother's day graphicAccess to higher education, especially flexible and affordable education, can help mothers attain their educational and economic goals.

Community colleges have led the way in serving working students and student parents. They cost less and offer more flexibility than four-year schools. Cost and flexibility, along with proximity to students’ homes, are the main reasons why so many students — almost 40 percent of undergraduates — choose community colleges.

While community colleges are an increasingly critical part of higher education, there is room for improvement. The dropout rate among students at community colleges is disappointing: Almost half of students won’t have completed a degree, received a certificate, or transferred within six years of enrolling.

So how do we improve graduation and completion rates for community college students, especially student moms like Cook? AAUW’s newest research report recommends increasing the availability of on-campus child care at community colleges. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that among students who pursue higher education, student parents are more likely than nonparents to drop out — and a disproportionate number of those parents are mothers. Since parents who drop out usually cite caregiving responsibilities and lack of financial resources as their main obstacles, increasing the availability of affordable child care would help keep more student parents in school through graduation.

Community colleges serve more student parents than four-year public or private schools, but less than half (48 percent) of community colleges provide on-campus child care, compared to 57 percent of four-year public schools. Funding for the U.S. Department of Education program Child Care Access Means Parents in School has declined over the last decade, and because federal child care grant amounts are tied to the overall cost of tuition, community colleges receive about half as much federal funding for child care as four-year schools do. Limited federal funding and a funding formula that puts community colleges at a disadvantage contribute to the lack of available child care.

Report cover of Women in Community Colleges: Access to SuccessOverall, child care services in the United States often provide substandard care, have limited capacity, and/or are prohibitively expensive. Many voices are calling for improvement. The American Sociological Association has long said that U.S. child care “seriously lags” behind public child care programs in Europe. In 2011, the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies found that average child care for an infant for a year ranged from $4,600 to $15,000. This means that for community college students, child care is likely to cost more than a year’s tuition. Given the cost and difficulty of finding quality child care, on-campus child care should be seen as a basic student support service for student parents.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” Cook said at the research report press briefing last week, “but without child care, we can’t get anything done.” Community colleges can be a valuable asset to student mothers, but without affordable, accessible child care, those mothers won’t be able to take advantage of the opportunities these institutions offer.

This post was written by Social Media Intern Elisa Shearer.

By:   |   May 16, 2013

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