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Child care costs can put higher education out of reach for student parents in Texas

The high cost of child care can prevent parents from pursuing higher education, experts say.
Gabriel C. Pérez
The high cost of child care can prevent parents from pursuing higher education, experts say.

In Texas, where the hourly minimum wage is $7.25, a student who has children would need to work as much as 64 hours per week to afford college and child care expenses, according to a new report.

Juggling the costs of college and child care is the primary challenge facing students who are parents, according to new research from The Education Trust. The nonprofit advocacy group looked at the expenses low-income student parents face in all 50 states. Nationwide, more than two-thirds of student parents live at or near the poverty line and 52% are grant recipients.

The cost of child care alone can be prohibitive for parents pursuing a postsecondary degree, said Jinann Bitar, director of higher education research and data analytics at The Education Trust.

“I think what surprises people is that child care often rivals or is even more expensive than public tuition,” she said.

This was the case for Isabel Torres, who began taking classes at Austin Community College after having her daughter. Assistance from the Texas Workforce Commission helped her cover the cost of school, books and even gas, but child care was another story.

Isabel Torres said it was hard to find affordable child care for her daughter, Jupiter, while attending Austin Community College.
Courtesy Isabel Torres
Isabel Torres said it was hard to find affordable child care for her daughter, Jupiter, while attending Austin Community College.

“The day care ... was the most challenging,” she said. “The first year that I tried to apply for assistance through Texas Workforce, it was on a freeze for about a year."

Torres, who is a single parent, said it was hard to find quality, affordable child care in Austin. Luckily, family members and friends helped out. She paid them at least $25 a day.

“Just looking into day cares, most of them were about $100 a day without any sort of assistance,” she said. “And it was very difficult. I knew I needed to have a career that had more opportunities if [my daughter and I] were going to be able to survive.”

Bitar and other researchers found student parents often face an affordability gap — the difference between what a student parent earns and the combined cost of child care and college. To figure out what the gap is in each state, the report's authors looked at how much money low-income parents need to pay on average for child care and the net price of attending a two- or four-year public college or university. They then subtracted the amount of money a student parent could earn working 10 hours per week at the minimum wage in their state. Bitar said they chose 10 hours because working more than that can hinder efforts to complete a degree.

According to The Education Trust, there is no state where a parent could work 10 hours a week and pay for all of the expenses associated with higher education, such as tuition, fees, books and child care.

The Education Trust estimated how many hours a student parent would need to work in each state to afford two different types of child care, in addition to college expenses. On average in the U.S., a student parent would need to work 53 hours a week to cover the cost of an in-home day care and their education. In Texas, where the hourly minimum wage is $7.25, a student parent would need to work 64 hours a week to cover those costs. If student parents in Texas put their kids in a child care center, they would need to work 54 hours a week to pay for child care and college.

“Texas also had one of the largest differences between the reported net price — so what it looks like to pay for college in Texas — and then the actual cost when you added in child care,” Bitar said.

A weight was lifted off Torres' shoulders when she had the opportunity to apply for a spot in the ACC Children's Lab School, which provides care for kids between the ages of 6 months and 5 years old. Her daughter got in, and she qualified for financial assistance.

“It truly felt like I had won the lottery,” Torres said. “She actually had an education and started learning and talking more and could write her name.”

She said without access to the affordable, high-quality day care at ACC, she would not have been able to graduate with her associate’s degree in allied health sciences, with a focus on becoming a pharmacy technician.

“And there would have been no other way for me to possibly have a future or a career that we could both live off of,” she said.

The Education Trust has a variety of recommendations for how to increase access to higher education for student parents, such as increasing the federal minimum wage to $20, increasing funding for early childhood education, and doubling the Pell Grant. Higher Education Senior Policy Analyst Brittani Williams said colleges also need to collect better data about students who are parents and increase access to child care.

“Creating and expanding more child care options on or near the campuses [will] make persistence a little bit easier for student parents,” she said.

Torres, who now works at ACC, advocates for fellow student parents. She agrees that making child care available on college campuses is key to supporting parents pursuing higher education.

“I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t put their child’s needs before their own,” she said. “And unfortunately if we don’t have a secure, safe place to watch them, then it’s not possible for us to go back to further our own career to support them.”