GAO Report Highlights Child Care Struggles of Student-Parents

By Lauren Walizer

Nearly a quarter of all U.S. undergraduates (4.3 million students, 22 percent) are parenting, and more than half (55 percent) of them are single parents. Yet few schools have prioritized the needs of student-parents. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which was prepared at the request of Senators Patty Murray and Tammy Duckworth, looks critically at the experiences of undergraduate student-parents and makes recommendations to the U.S. Department of Education for improvements in serving them. This report was released at an event on Capitol Hill where the report’s findings were placed in context by student-parents—who shared their lived experiences—and college officials who serve them.

The report looked at student-parents’ characteristics and their participation in the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program and other federal programs that support students. It also examined student-parents’ awareness of a federal financial aid provision that provides a dependent care allowance as a part of their cost of attendance.

The average age of student-parents is 33, and 71 percent are female. Student-parents are more likely to be Black or Latinx, and less likely to be Asian or White, as compared with undergraduates overall. The report highlights a critical gap in outcomes for student-parents: after 6 years, 52 percent of student-parents left school without a degree, compared to 32 percent of all other students. 

To promote student-parent success, schools must identify and provide needed financial, emotional, and logistical supports such as child care services. The GAO calculated an 82 percent persistence rate among students participating in the CCAMPIS program. CCAMPIS participants paid a median rate of $160 a month for child care, which was significantly lower than the average of $490 a month for all students with child care expenses. Unfortunately, CCAMPIS is too small to meet the needs of all student-parents; among the schools they surveyed, the GAO found substantial waiting lists for care at CCAMPIS program sites.

Because of CCAMPIS’s limited size, the report also discussed the federal Child Care Development Fund (CCDF), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Head Start programs as potential sources of subsidized child care for student-parents. The challenge with these programs is that funding is capped and, in some states, policy choices place unique and burdensome restrictions on student-parent participation. CLASP has worked to raise awareness about these barriers for several years, including through our ongoing technical assistance project in which we help design state policy agendas—spanning multiple state agencies—to improve students’ access to resources that support their success. States must think about their student attainment goals as an effort that will benefit everyone and engage nontraditional partners to think about whether their programs support this goal.

Finally, the report noted that student-parents are eligible for a dependent care allowance on child care expenses, which increases their calculated cost of attendance and thus their eligibility for additional aid. Colleges do not always tell students about this possibility, and the report did not make it clear whether all of the colleges interviewed have a systemized way to calculate what the allowance would be. As we note in our technical assistance work with states and higher education institutions and systems, colleges have access to Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) data and could use that to determine a student’s status as an independent with dependents. Colleges, like the one from the Midwest that was highlighted in the report, could pre-populate students’ financial aid award letters with a dependent care allowance if their FAFSA indicates they are caring for dependents. 

FAFSA data is one source colleges can tap for a more intentional understanding of their student-parents. Colleges that approach the circumstances of student-parents with an openness and active curiosity to learn more will, over time, identify and adopt system designs that improve parenting students’ educational achievement, and with it, their families’ stability.