Do Universities Support Student Parents?

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Kristen Handsel is praying for a miracle child care solution.

The University of Texas junior had hoped her mother would care for her son Dutch while Handsel, 28, completed her bachelor's degree and her husband worked fulltime. But then her mother received a devastating diagnosis: neuroendocrine cancer.

Now Handsel and her five-month-old son are on the bottom of a 700-person waiting list for UT's campus Child Care Center.

"I'm constantly trying to reevaluate my priorities between going to school, providing for my child, not getting into worse debt, and working. So it's just a constant struggle between those things," said Handsel, who is majoring in neurobiology and also working as a radiology technologist.

Handsel represents one of 3.9 million student-parents pursuing post-secondary education. But according to a new report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, only five percent of their child care is supplied on campus. In fact, it's estimated there are only 54,400 slots for the more than 1.1 million children under the age of 14.

The result?

"Without child care, a lot of these parents won't graduate," said Kevin Miller, the report's lead author.

And that's one of Handsel's concerns.

"You can get bogged down with the daily grind and just working to pay the bills and slowly lose the drive to continue with your education," she said.

Hara Cootes, director of the UT Child Development Center, said she does her best to provide referrals to the 700 families on the Center's waitlist.

"We absolutely recognize that while we are able to offer services that meet the majority of people on campuses needs, by no means do we realize that we can meet everyone's needs," she said.

An 'Invisible' Student Population

Student-parents are often erroneously associated with teen pregnancies -- especially now that teen moms are so often featured in the media. But the average age of the student-parent demographic is 33, and 50 percent are married.

"The link in people's minds is stronger than it should be," Miller said. "And this knee-jerk reaction that people have, that maybe we shouldn't be providing them with services, is just a form of victim blaming,"

Paired with this misconception is a lack of data on college campuses about student-parents, as most universities don't maintain records about the students' parental status.

"In terms of designing services and allocating resources, there are campuses where administrators are aware. But on some campuses, student-parents are an invisible population," said Miller.

Child Care Resources Vary Greatly Among Schools

Among the private Ivy League universities, half of them including Brown, Princeton, Columbia and Dartmouth do not provide on-campus child care for student parents, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Miller suggested that the sheer size of public universities, which tend to be larger than the private ones, may account for the increased rate of child care centers at public institutions. But he also said, "I think it's also possible that the mission of public universities lends itself to a greater emphasis on serving nontraditional and/or disadvantaged students."

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