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.
"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."
Community colleges, however, are less likely to have an on-campus child care center. Between 2007 and 2009, 32 community colleges that had previously provided on-campus child care for students ended the service altogether. But those community colleges that do provide care are more likely to serve student-parents rather than faculty or staff.
North Carolina, California and New York each have state funding policies that support child care for student-parents who attend community colleges or state schools.
In North Carolina, this state funding is provided via the North Carolina Community College Child Care Grant.
Even so, "We don't have enough money to help enough students," said Nash Community College assistant financial aid officer Priscilla Dickens.
Currently, there are no children of student-parents enrolled at the college's Betsy B. Currin Child Development Center. As a lab school that is open to the Rocky Mount community, as well as student-parents, faculty and staff, the center provides full-time day care for 42 children, ranging from six weeks to five years old. Their waiting list has over 90 hopefuls, 23 of whom are student-parents.
But Center director Lindsay Lee admitted, "A majority of the children on that waiting list probably won't get in."
Dwindling Government Aid for Student Parents
Both community colleges and public four-year colleges face the same stumbling block: funding.
Due to dire public university budget cuts and a lack of involvement by high-level administrators, on-campus child care centers are a costly need that may go unmet, Miller says.
Currently, the Department of Education has a single federal program that provides aid to low-income student-parents for campus-based child care services: the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (CCAMPIS). But since 2001, CCAMPIS funds have plummeted from $25 million to $16 million.
Single-parent families are hit especially hard by a lack of federal funding, as on-campus child care can consume a large part of their family budget. Many child care centers have sliding scale payment programs created to match parental income.
Still, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies estimates that a year of full-day center-based care can rival the cost of college tuitions: Four-year-old care averages over $7,100 and infant care can average over $8,900.
Scholarship In Need of Donors
When Rasheeda Phillips became pregnant at 14 years old, her family could no longer hope she would escape the cycle of teen pregnancy that had started when her grandmother became a teen mom decades earlier. In Phillips' senior year of high school, a guidance counselor encouraged her to apply to college, and find a way to fund it. Then, in 2002, she was awarded the Family Care Solutions Child Care Scholarship.
"In all honestly, if I did not get that scholarship, there is no way I could have gone to college and be successful because I could not afford child care," said Phillips, 27, who currently works in Philadelphia as an attorney at a legal services organization and is now on the board of directors for FCS.
Sherrill Mosee created the FCS Child Care Scholarship in 1998 for low-income single mothers with children under the age of five who are enrolled as full-time college students. The grant is funded via community investors: individual donors, foundations and corporations.
"I decided to start the childcare scholarship to help women stay in school so that they can make a difference in lives of their children," Mosee said. "When the mom is educated, she values education and she'll pass those values onto her children."
In addition to the scholarship, FCS also partners with universities to funnel CCAMPIS funds to student-parents for off-campus child care. But Mosee says that as CCAMPIS funds are slashed and donor amounts dwindle, FCS stands on its last legs. At its height, the organization worked to provide funding for student-parents at 10 universities. Now it is down to one: Rutgers University.
Defying the Odds
Keys to Degrees, a program that helps student parents find housing and daycare, has succeeded in obtaining funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.
"You seek grants to initialize the program and then you have to find a way to bring it under your budget so that it's sustainable. I make choices everyday to keep this program," said Keys to Degrees founder Richard Wyle. "This isn't a do-gooder attitude or social obligation. It's a social opportunity."
He created the program in 1997 when he was president of Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. At the time it was the first school to provide on-campus housing for 10 single student-parents, ages 18 to 24, and their children. Currently, the program provides resources for parents to find daytime childcare for their children while enrolled full-time at the university.
Wylie now aspires to spread this unique housing concept to five different universities across the nation within the next year.
As for the Handsels, they have reassessed their finances -- clipping coupons and canceling cable to save up for daytime infant care for Dutch.
But Handsel failed to find on-campus childcare for the summer. Instead, mother and son have both enrolled for the fall semester: Dutch into the Gethsemane Lutherane child care center in North Austin, and Kristen into her remaining neurobiology classes at UT. The Handsels have also accepted dual realities: childcare "college tuition" rates and their own amassing student debt.
Nevertheless, Handsel acknowledged one of the main reasons for getting her bachelor's degree: her son. She said, "I can't ever push him to get his degree if I don't have one myself."
ABCNews.com contributor Reshma Kirpalani is a member of the ABC News on Campus program in Austin, Texas.