Student-parents at risk of losing funding due to proposed 2018 fiscal budget

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Ava Weiner/Daily
Sunday, September 17, 2017 - 4:57pm

For the vast majority of undergraduate students at the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, the prospect of raising a family is remote –– something they do not imagine doing for another several years, or at least until they graduate. According to Amy Szczepanski, campus child care homes network manager for Work Life Resource Center, there are only 57 undergraduates receiving a child care subsidy through the Office of Financial Aid — though the total number of undergraduate parents is likely slightly higher.

For more than 4.8 million college students across the country, however, leading a double life as a student-parent — or, factoring in work, a triple life — is their reality. The time they spend on child care makes them less likely to graduate on time or at all, and their responsibilities as a student force them to sacrifice time with their children.

And neither child care nor higher education are uncostly. With what little time they have between the two commitments, student-parents often must work just to keep themselves afloat; according to reports from Young Invincibles, 25 percent of student-parents live below the federal poverty line, and according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, 88 percent of student-parents at community colleges live below 200 percent of that.

Child Care Access Means Parents in School

One of the few programs working to address the urgency of student-parent needs is Child Care Access Means Parents in School, a federal competitive grant program managed by the Department of Education that awards grants to colleges and universities intended to support or establish campus-based child care programs for low-income student-parents.

Funded at about $15 million per year, the program is small compared to the size of the Department of Education's budget, and, serving approximately 5,000 students, the breadth of its impact is similar.

For those 5,000, the benefits are life-changing. Quisha and Byron Cooper have been working toward degrees at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., for four years, while raising children since their sophomore year. Without the program, the Coopers say, they wouldn't have been able to go to college at all.

"To us, the grant is humongous, because it's literally how we live our lives and how we're able to function and go to school and work and still have affordable, reliable daycare," Quisha said. "Before I had children, I was always goal-oriented and wanted to obtain a degree and go to school for social work. So yeah, there was a time when we didn't participate in the grant, but it wasn't a time that I want to go back to."

However, that could all disappear with the passage of the next federal appropriations bill, likely to be passed by both chambers of Congress in late September. According to documents obtained by The Washington Post, the budgets proposed by the Trump administration and the House of Representatives for the upcoming fiscal year cancel funding for CCAMPIS, as well as several other higher education programs.

Colin Seeberger, strategic campaigns director at Young Invincibles –– a policy and advocacy nonprofit for young adults that works with students in CCAMPIS –– said he was particularly disappointed by the news given the history of bipartisan support for the program.

"Senator Susan Collins and her former colleague Senator Olympia Snowe, both of whom are Republicans, formerly were co-sponsors of CCAMPIS reauthorization bills," Seeberger said. "That’s something that hasn’t really been questioned before, whether it was something that had the support of Republicans and Democrats. We would hope that it would not and this would not become as partisan of a program."

In its budget proposal, the Trump administration justified the elimination of the program, saying "subsidizing expenses associated with child care is not consistent with the Department’s core mission.”

But Seeberger disagrees.

"Helping students get in, access and complete school has always been part of the mission at the Department of Education, so that was kind of alarming," he said.

Far from cutting the program, Seeberger thinks it should be expanded to a $500 million program via grant matching, with $250 million coming from the federal government and the other $250 million coming from matching funds from states and higher education institutions. Doing that, he argues, would allow the program to serve 250,000 student-parents living in poverty. As it is now, he said, the program meets the needs of the students it serves, “but doesn't actually meet the scale of the challenges we're seeing.”

And while there are plenty of other government programs in need of funding, Seeberger points out each dollar going toward CCAMPIS has additional effect because of the program's “multigenerational impact.” He said he's had students who say the grant brings what would be a thousand-dollar monthly child care bill down to $150 per semester.

"You can imagine, when you’re a student-parent and you’re focused on your studies, maybe you’re working a full-time or part-time job but still raising a child — that extra $900 a month can be all the difference in the world of being able to buy your textbooks, being able to feed your family, being able to — for that matter — stay in school and take on less student debt," he said. "You’re getting that much more bang for your buck, ensuring that kids are growing up in more economically stable family units as well."

The Coopers attest to this emphatically, saying they now feel confident in the environment in which their children are growing up. And more than just being safe and affordable, they say CCAMPIS creates an atmosphere that is uniquely enriching for their children.

"If this grant was cut, we would probably have to go back to working full-time and maybe cut education out for a while. So our kids probably wouldn't grow up in the same atmosphere that they are in right now, because right now we do this on campus in student housing, they have a very rich cultural setting around, just as far as the diversity," Quisha Cooper said. "Literally, our children grow up on the campus of Ferris State University and get a huge experience and a different outlook that kids their age don't often get just going to a regular daycare or just staying at home."

According to Byron, they never had any difficulty enrolling in the program and it never caused them any confusion. If they keep their GPAs above 2.5, he explained, then Ferris State covers half the cost of their child care. Above a 3.0, it covers 75 percent, and above a 3.5 all expenses are covered.

"Our daycare facility pretty much helped us out with that a lot," he said. "So it wasn't a difficult process to sign up for at all. We just filled out a form or so, and our daycare provider did the rest."

Child care at the University

And while the grant is not big enough for everyone who would like to use it, some institutions have taken the CCAMPIS model and made it their own. The University’s Ann Arbor campus was a CCAMPIS grant recipient until 2005, but stopped pursuing federal funding because the program was targeted mainly toward undergraduates, rather than graduate students.

Since 2005, though, the University has been funding its own program, now known as the Campus Child Care Homes Network. Functioning as a complement to the University's three main children's centers serving faculty, students and staff, Campus Child Care Homes is now a collection of 11 homes in Northwood Family Housing that provide daycare for about 150 children. Recruited and trained by the University and licensed by the state, students' spouses often care for other children alongside their own.

Jennie McAlpine, director for the Work-Life Resources Program at the University, said the shift from federal to University funding was a natural transition.

"Around the time the grant was about to run out, we looked at things differently and we thought that capping it to experienced and long-running child care providers in the community would be a good way to go; it would be very stable and work for a very long time," she said. "And at that time, we just began, once we secured funding here from the University, we just began to make that our focus, and now we have 11 campus child care homes which are state-licensed, home-based child care centers for University families, and we count those child care spaces for any affiliates: Students, or staff or faculty."

And, according to Amy Szczepanski, the homes are preferable over the larger children's centers for a variety of reasons.

"They, in their agreement with us, we help them by providing support for training and equipping and improving their homes, so it provides another more than 150 spaces available to University families that often accommodate more flexible hours, that are a little bit less expensive than our children's centers, they have more room for infants than our children's centers," she said.

Veronica Varela, a Rackham student currently working toward her Ph.D. in neuroscience, has two daughters aged 9 and 12. She said the University’s child care stipend and flexible child care program options were one of the main factors in her decision to come here.

While child care is still a major concern for her, it is less so than it used to be, as her children are of age to enroll in public school. It wasn't always that way, though. Varela started her undergraduate degree at California State University at San Bernardino almost a decade ago, when her youngest was only 6 months old. The only reason college was a possibility for her –– then a single mom, though she got married two years ago –– was the college's CCAMPIS program.

"Because of the CCAMPIS program I was able to have the girls in preschool and daycare from 8 to 5. And I could utilize that time in between classes to actually study, because as soon as I got home, there was no time to study. I never would've been able to pass my classes, I never would've even been able to go to college if I didn't have that funding," she said. "Only because I had that funding and because I had a safe place for my girls to be was I able to be successful enough to come to the University of Michigan."

Being a student-parent, Varela said, she still feels guilty about having to split time between her education and her children –– and occasionally having to take them to lectures with her when they get too sick to go to school or daycare. However, CCAMPIS has made it worthwhile for both Varela and her children.

"I can say that it made a really huge difference in my life," she said. "It made a huge difference in the life of my children, because they were able to be in programs that they had fun, they learned, while I was also getting my education. But at the end of the day, I could spend time with them."

And while safe, affordable, reliable child care is invaluable and life-changing to the students and students' children CCAMPIS serves, Quisha said often what makes it worth it is the community of people who understand the unique challenges she faces.

"I know students who use this grant at Western, I know students who use this grant at the University of Michigan, we might see each other on Facebook and say, 'Oh hi, you use this grant, I use this grant, how are you, how are your kids doing?'" she said. "So just to say it's a small grant, when you don't have kids and you're not in that lifestyle, yeah, it's a small grant, but when you're a student and you're a mother or a father and you're trying to raise children and go to school, you definitely link up with those people very easily because they understand your circumstances and what you're going through."