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College Kids, With Kids

July 6, 2016
By Jamie Merisotis and Anne-Marie Slaughter

IN the last year or so, dozens of employers — from the Navy to Goldman Sachs — have begun offering or expanding benefits like paid family leave and job-sharing that enable parents to better balance work with family life. Slowly, America’s famously family-unfriendly workplace might finally be improving. But the only employees who really stand to benefit are white-collar ones. Since the 1960s, paid parental leave increased nearly five times for workers with a college degree, but it has only doubled for those with just a high school degree.

There’s one big obstacle standing in the way of working parents getting these quality jobs: a college degree. And image of college students with kidscolleges are doing far too little to help them.

There are 4.8 million undergraduates raising children — one-fourth of all postsecondary students. But more than half of these student-parents leave college without finishing after six years. Their lack of a degree essentially locks them out of jobs with benefits like on-site child care, paid leave and telecommuting that make it possible to be effective workers and parents.

Nearly half of student-parents attend community colleges, and a quarter of them enroll at for-profit institutions. Some are lured to these institutions by their flexibility and affordability, but too many colleges fail to provide the support students need to graduate. The same is true for many at traditional four-year institutions.

Kim Mitchell of Mantua, N.J., dropped out of college twice because it was impossible to balance schoolwork with a demanding software-trainer job and her role as lead parent to two children.

“Your free time is your family time,” Ms. Mitchell, 46, said. “As a working mom, you feel guilty giving up any of that time with your little ones.”

When her kids were teenagers, she enrolled for a final time in an online program. She completed her bachelor’s in 2014 and her master’s in June but now faces another challenge: paying off $47,000 in student loans while footing the bill for her kids’ college tuition.

To make sure more student-parents complete their degrees when they first enroll, we must better meet their needs.

This means ensuring they have adequate financial resources. Nearly six in 10 student-parents live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line — $48,600 a year for a family of four. A setback such as a broken-down car can make it all but impossible to work, attend school and provide child care.

Hillary Clinton has proposed awarding up to a million student-parents $1,500 per year for expenses like child care and transportation. This would help, but other changes are needed. Allowing students to receive aid in regular installments over the course of the school year — much as they would a paycheck — rather than up front enables parents to better manage the myriad expenses they face. And offering a small amount of support for unexpected expenses midyear — so-called emergency aid — would also help.

Student-parents also need on-campus child care. Half of public four-year institutions and 45 percent of community colleges provide it, but those percentages have declined since 2003. This drop is driven partly by state and federal budget cuts for programs that support on-campus child care. Funding for one such federal program, Child Care Access Means Parents in School, decreased to an estimated $15 million in 2015 from $25 million in 2001.

For Melissa Maher, a 43-year-old mother of three school-age children in Bartlett, Tenn., having school-break schedules that are misaligned with her children’s K-12 calendar adds to the costs that she and her husband face.

This is one reason flexible alternatives to brick-and-mortar institutions are so important. Many of these programs track progress toward a degree not by time spent in classrooms, measured by credit hours, but by students’ actual learning, measured by competency or mastery. Institutions like Brandman University and Empire State College allow students to learn online, in-person or through a mix. (Full disclosure: Lumina Foundation, run by one of the writers, has given grant money to programs at these schools.)

Schools that offer such competency-based online courses have to go through a complicated regulatory process for their students to receive federal financial aid. We need to streamline this process to make it easier for aid recipients to attend these flexible programs.

By making these changes, we can help student-parents improve their prospects and our economy. Over the next decade, two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require education beyond high school, yet only 45 percent of Americans have a degree or certificate — a gap we must fill to remain competitive.

There’s perhaps never been greater momentum to establish a better work-life equilibrium in America. Just as we pressure employers to improve their benefits, we need to pressure colleges to help student parents succeed.

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