The problems with Clinton’s child care plan to support student-parents

November 7, 2016

Nontraditional college students are more likely than traditional student to rely on student loans to pay tuition and cover living expenses including child care. As a result, Congress has established higher borrowing limits for these students.                                            

Unfortunately, although they tend to borrow more, students who are also parents are less likely to graduate and reap the benefits of postsecondary education, in part because of the challenges they have in accessing and paying for reliable, safe child care. 

Secretary Clinton seeks to solve this problem by expanding the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program, a grant program administered by the US Department of Education to support campus-based child care centers.

I agree with Secretary Clinton that we need to improve access to affordable child care for all parents, and especially for those who are also students, but the CCAMPIS program may not be the best answer—at least not as the program is currently designed. The most recent evaluation of the program (admittedly, not a particularly comprehensive or robust one) pointed to its lackluster results. (Full disclosure: I was the assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the time of the report.)

For one thing, CCAMPIS allows institutions to use grant funds for everything from renovations of facilities to designing new teacher compensation schemes, and some of these uses may be of minimal benefit to student-parents. 

It is shocking that federal spending per parent ranged from a mere $37 to $23,000 with no apparent correlation between level of spending and observed student-parent outcomes. No attempts were made to measure the impact of campus-based child care on the children’s health or learning outcomes.

While CCAMPIS grantees must provide child care to low-income students based on a sliding fee schedule, they can also provide care for faculty, staff, and members of the community who can be charged full price.

In fact, grantees likely need to serve full-pay parents to generate revenue that counts toward the required institutional contribution and compensates for the revenue losses associated with the required student-parent sliding scale. 

Low-income students could spend years on a campus child care waiting list while parents who have no connection to the institution—but who can pay full price—are served.

Some campus-based child care centers give preference to parents who enroll their children full time, yet few student-parents spend 40 hours a week on campus. If they don’t live near campus or can’t afford full-time care, the center may not meet their needs at all. 

And even centers that enroll children part time may not be able to meet the needs of a student-parent whose class schedule changes every 12 to 15 weeks.

Parent-students who go to school at night may find the child care center closed during those hours, and online students might not even live in the same state as the institution.

Even if evening care is available, how many parents want to regularly drag a sleeping child on a two-bus journey home after evening classes end at 9 or 10 p.m.? For these students, subsidized care in their own community may be more helpful.

According to a recent Atlantic article, it may be that the most beneficial use of CCAMPIS funds would be to support short-term, drop-in child care facilities, similar to those provided by fitness clubs and some retail stores. Lower regulatory hurdles make this type of care less costly and perhaps more helpful to parent-students who depend on free care from family and friends, but need a backup when those arrangements unexpectedly fall through.

What’s a better approach for supporting student-parents?

I agree with both campaigns that, as a nation, we need to do a better job of making affordable, high-quality child care more universally available. However, there is no evidence that expanding the CCAMPIS program is the best way to achieve the goal. 

A better use of funds, as reported by my colleagues Gina Adams and Caroline Heller, may be to supplement the recently reauthorized Community Care Development Fund so that states can meet the unique needs of student-parents through a variety of solutions, including those that provide close-to-home support during nontraditional care hours.

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