Tracy Moronatty didn’t tell anyone when she found out she was pregnant. The 19-year-old freshman at Southwest Community College in San Diego was broke, on bad terms with the baby’s dad, and utterly overwhelmed. She kept her secret for six months, until her bump grew too big to hide. That's when she finally shared the news with her mom, who offered to help raise the child if Tracy moved with her to Los Angeles. Without other options, she agreed: At the end of the spring semester, her July due date looming, Tracy dropped out of school and moved to the L.A. suburbs.
But she didn’t want to give up her dream of getting a degree. Soon after she arrived, Tracy walked her big belly up a hill to the admissions office at nearby Rio Hondo Community College and registered for fall semester. She started classes that August, leaving infant Noe at home with her mom. At first, things seemed like they were going to work out fine. But then she and her mom had a falling out, and with no one to watch Noe, Tracy dropped out again.
It wouldn’t be the first — or the last — time that would happen. In 2013, when Tracy was 23, she tried to return to school again. To make it work, she enrolled Noe in two different daycares; it was the only way she could get the right coverage at a price she could afford. Between her three part-time jobs, the four-hour blocks of math and Chicano studies, and the 20-minute schlep on the 605 between the nurseries, Tracy was missing too much class and Noe was missing too much nap time.
“It was very stressful on him, very stressful on me,” Tracy says, looking back. Ultimately, she finished the school year with enough credits for an associate's degree, but once again decided to put her dream of a full bachelor’s degree on hold. The idea of transferring — and possibly moving — was just too daunting. “I was like, 'Who is going to help me with my son?'” she recalls. “I wish I could go. But I’m going to be by myself.”
If you think Tracy’s story about the perils of unplanned motherhood is a niche problem for only a small subset of college kids, you've got it wrong. There are more than 4.8 million undergraduate parents on campuses nationwide — that's one in four undergraduates today. While some of those students are young married couples starting families on the early side, or older adults heading back to school post-kids, many of these young college parents are female, single, and totally lacking the child care resources necessary to actually complete four years of higher education.
Student parents rack up more student debt than most (25% more for a bachelor's degree, on average), and drop out at higher rates than their child-free peers (only 27% of single student parents finish a bachelor's degree within 6 years, versus about 56% of their child-free peers). For this group in particular, the cycle of enrolling and dropping out can compound an already vicious cycle of poverty, both for moms like Tracy and eventually for their kids, too (research shows kids of parents without a degree don’t fare as well as the those of college grads).
And yet, while headlines and college guides tout offerings like multi-million dollar fitness centers, lobster dinners, and in-dorm flat screen TVs to attract wealthier students, support systems for student parents go largely unnoticed — if not overlooked or ignored altogether. Across the country, public four-year universities and community colleges are scrapping day cares; just 44% of all community colleges, where the majority of student parents are enrolled, reported having a campus child care center as of 2015, down 9% from the decade before. Four-year public colleges reported a 5% drop in services. Now, with the Trump administration moving to scrap what little federal funding for campus child care centers that already exists, that access is at risk of being rolled back even more.
“We are absolutely desperate to convince our administrations that we are here,” says Dr. Autumn Green, a former student parent who serves as director of The National Center for Student Parent Programs and an associate professor at Endicott College. “If this population continues to stay invisible and not have their needs adequately addressed, this is actually going to become a crisis in higher education.”
Access to affordable child care is among the greatest challenges for most parents these days, but for student parents, it’s particularly tough. Campus life is hardly conducive to the regular schedule most daycares rely on; student housing isn’t kid friendly — crying babies and freshman dorms are about as suitable as inviting your grandparents to a frat party. Classes are often spread out throughout the day (and night), so traditional daycare hours don’t always work for student parents. And unlike working parents, most students — even when they work part time, as 66% of student parents do — don't earn wages to offset the high cost of child care: The average cost of daycare for young children has skyrocketed to more than $9,500 a year, according to the New America foundation.
Those logistical barriers came up again and again in interviews with student mothers from across the country. Isis Patterson, a 20-year-old single mom from New York City, remembers calling colleges her senior year in high school to find out whether campus housing could accommodate her and her then-toddler if she was accepted: “Most of the answers were no.”
Caitlin Kirchner, 30, returned to finish her degree at University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, after the birth of her second son. Planning class around her husband’s unpredictable grocery store shifts was “insane and super frustrating,” and full-time child care for their boys would cost more than their rent.
“The thing that’s the most frustrating is that I only have less than 30 credits that I need to graduate,” she says. “I would be able to do that in a year. But due to the lack of child care it’s going to take me years.”
Another young student mother, Melanie Maestas, was “super stressed” after she found out she was pregnant weeks before finals during her junior year at University of New Mexico. “The whole nine months, I was looking for child care,” she says. By the time the baby Santino arrived over the summer, she and her husband, who was also a student at the time, still hadn’t figured it out. Each day was a whirlwind of passing off Santino between classes. “Literally we waved hi and by to each other,” she recalls of those hand offs. When schedules didn’t line up, Maestas toted the tot along with her books to lectures, as well as her part-time job as a front-desk assistant. She’d have to duck out to feed him or change his diaper when he got fussy.
“People were like, ‘Whoa, you’re bringing your baby to class?” she recalls. Maestas was able to make the arrangement work, but it came at a cost to her studies: “I wasn’t able to fully focus.”
The solution to problems like the ones faced by the parents should be obvious: add more services for parents alongside other student offerings. And, to be sure, there are campuses trying to do just that. Miseracordia College in Pennsylvania has free babysitting; and St. Paul’s in Virginia has a mentorship program to help keep parents afloat. Endicott College, where Isis Patterson ultimately enrolled, provides suite-style living reserved for parents and their children, as well as early learning stipends and meals in the dining hall for kids through its Keys to Degrees program. Patterson is thriving at the picturesque campus along the Massachusetts coast — and her son, Kaiden, now 5, is too. She was even able to use a program stipend for Kaiden to see a speech therapist, who helped catch him up on crucial developmental milestones he had missed during his early childhood in New York. “School has been the gateway for me to excel beyond poverty,” she says. It has also been a way to ensure a better life for Kaiden. "He’s relying on me."
Services like these are the exception, not the rule, and even colleges with support systems for parents in place can’t keep up with the demand for care. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 95% of institutions with child care options had a waitlist; on average, a list is 82 kids long. As colleges and universities tighten spending in the face of budget cuts and rising tuition, many of these care centers are closing altogether. Deep-pocketed donors, whose big checks often offset the costs of some of glitzier offerings, don’t seem as eager to pony up for child care these days.
Part of the problem, advocates working on the issue say, is that many colleges and administrators don't even realize the needs of this population exist. On top of that, in the end, many universities just “don’t see childcare as part of their fundamental mission as an academic institution,” Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, a senior research associate at IWPR, says. “It’s expensive to run a childcare center. Space is at a premium at most colleges, let alone community colleges,” she explains. “There’s just not a lot of funding out there.”
If there was ever a moment for an issue like child care on campus to rise to the forefront of American politics, it seems like that moment should be now. The 2016 election put policies for working families in the spotlight like never before, with major-party nominees from both sides of the aisle touting proposals related to child care affordability and paid family leave on the campaign trail. The ballooning student debt crisis has also become impossible to ignore, and so it should follow that the issue of child care on campus — which combines so neatly those two platforms — would be capable of reaching critical mass support.
In reality, the opposite has been true. During his first address to Congress last February, President Trump, at the urging of his daughter Ivanka Trump, pledged to "work with members of both parties to make child care accessible and affordable." But when the administration rolled out its first federal budget proposal earlier this year, there were deep cuts to a variety of child care initiatives — including the only federally-funded program solely focused on helping student parents. The Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program, also known as CCAMPIS, was created in the late 1990s to support low-income parents in higher education. At its start, it had bipartisan support. But, as often happens in Washington, promises of robust funding never materialized: CCAMPIS doled out about $15 million in grants to just over 80 universities in 2015.
At it's most robust point, under Republican President George W. Bush, it was funded to the tune of $25 million. But the current cash pool, which has remained steady in recent years, is a figure Green, The National Center for Student Parent Programs director, have criticized as "not anywhere near the level of need." There's data to back that. As it stands now, CCAMPIS reaches about 5,000 student parents — a mere one-tenth of one percent of the total student parent population — and programs on less than one half of one percent of all campuses. All this makes Trump's proposed cut — the elimination of an initiative that's essentially a rounding error in the overall $4.1 trillion federal budget plan — especially hard to swallow for advocates. The fact that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wanted to turbo-boost the program's funding to $250 million is salt in the wound.
To Christopher Nellum, policy and research director at Young Invincibles, an advocacy organization for millennials, the proposed cuts are “a signal of one of two things: that lawmakers aren’t interested in supporting the success of today’s students, or they don’t care.”
"Young people working hard are going to be put in a difficult position," he says of the cuts. "We’re worried."
Rep. Katherine Clark, who has championed legislation to permanently reauthorize CCAMPIS and quadruple its funding to $87 million a year, is similarly frustrated by the lack of interest from colleagues across the aisle. “It is a puzzle to me,” Clark told Refinery29 during an interview earlier this year.
“Maybe it’s that many members of Congress are of a generation where they haven’t dealt with this firsthand. But there seems to be a disconnect between what’s happening with our families at home and what the priorities are," the Massachusetts Democrat said. Clark reintroduced her legislation in July, saying in a release that “increasing access to high quality child care creates a stronger workforce and a stronger economy in which more families have a shot at success." A sister bill in the Senate has the backing of big-name Democrats, including Sens. Patty Murray, Tammy Duckworth, and Kirsten Gillibrand. While these proposals are far from a complete solution —Young Invincibles projects that it would cost $500 million to meet the full need for support — advocates say any increase in funds would be a major improvement.
The ultimate fate of CCAMPIS remains unknown. Without backing from the GOP majority or the White House, those bills are DOA. House Republicans signaled they too want to ax the program in a summer hearing on the budget; a spending bill on the Senate side, meanwhile, recommends keeping funding in tact. A decision, for 2018 at least, could come as part of broader negotiations to fund the government in December, though advocates worry other legislative overhauls in the area of higher education could still effectively gut or eliminate the program. And now, there are signs the White House might seek to keep CCAMPIS alive after all. When asked for comment from Ivanka Trump, who has sought to position herself within the administration as an advocate for affordable child care and other policies that promote women in the workplace, a White House official told Refinery29: "We are working on ways to preserve the program."
Of course, not everyone thinks throwing federal money at the issue — or, in this case, this particular program — is the fix. Trump's budget proposal identified it as one of a number of initiatives that “duplicate other programs, are more appropriately supported with State, local, institutional, or private funds, are outside of the Department’s core mission, or have not shown evidence of effectiveness.” Some advocates and politicians on the right say that while child care access is a problem on campuses, the solution lies not necessarily in expanding CCAMPIS, but in finding other sources for funding. Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, served as a teacher and administrator of colleges back home in North Carolina before joining Congress. Even in the 1980s, when she was president of rural Mayland Community College, demand for child care on campus was apparent. So, at the urging of a young female student, she set out to build a facility.
Without additional state or federal funding, she says she had to get creative. She struck a deal with a program that provided prison inmate work and set out to raise the large sums of cash to get the project done. She wrote grants to nonprofits and took in donations — from $35 in candy bar sales to a $75,000 stock transfer from a generous local farmer. Three-plus years later, the center was up and running. "You wouldn’t believe the hurdles we had to jump, but we did it,” Foxx recalls.
To Foxx, such a path is preferable to increasing federal funding to colleges, a move she believes just leads them to raise tuition and fees, "making the situation worse." In her mind, federal programs for education, as a whole, haven't been subjected to rigorous enough evaluation to confirm that they work. "We need to encourage private sector involvement in all of our educational programs," Foxx says. “I am pushing business and industry people to be much more involved because they ultimately are paying twice or three times [later on] for our lack of effective education and child care."
Foxx says she was married, working, and raising her daughter when she finished her own degree half a century ago. Because they both worked their way through school, she and her husband graduated with very little debt. In her mind, today's young parents should be able to do the same with creative thinking. "I’m very well aware of the juggling that people have to do to do all this, but it’s well worth it," she says. "I want to continue to tell students to look for every single way that they can continue their education without going into debt."
For many parents today, though, that's easier said than done.
With the prospect of more cuts and frozen funding on the horizon, child care administrators across America are preparing for the worst. Victoria Dimas, program specialist at the University of New Mexico’s Children’s Campus, has seen her waitlist double in the last three to four years. They had to stop advertising. “There’s a huge demand for care,” she says. “We’re at the front lines of this and we see how this funding is impacting families. Without it, I really am concerned about how students would be able to persist in their education.”
Melanie Maestas, the UNM mother who brought infant Santino to class, was one of those students who, nevertheless, persisted thanks to CCAMPIS. While on a lengthy waitlist for a subsidized daycare spot, she learned about another free campus babysitting service meant to serve as a stopgap for coverage during class hours. For Maestas and her husband, the program, also funded by CCAMPIS, was a lifesaver. At night, it offered study hours, providing babysitters and dinner for the kids. “If it wasn’t for that, I would have stayed home," she says."
Maestas graduated the following fall, becoming the first woman in her family to get a bachelor’s degree. Her husband finished school, too. They went on to have a second child and eventually secured two full-time spots in UNM’s CCAMPIS-subsidized child care center, allowing them both to pursue graduate studies. By the time Maestas finished her master’s program last spring, she had her choice of three full-time job offers. Her experience is a testament to what happens when student parents have the resources and support to make it through.
Tracy Moronatty is hoping her own school story will have a similar end. She's 26 now and giving college one more go. Noe is finally in school, which frees up more daytime hours; last year, she enrolled in California State Polytechnic University-Pomona and declared a major in communication.
It hasn’t been easy. She’s still working multiple jobs, and even then, money is tight. She and Noe moved out of a rented bedroom and into her cousin’s living room. She hired an aunt to pick up Noe on the days she has to be in class until 8 or 9 p.m. — at least now, it’s less of a problem if she can’t afford to pay on time. Right before finals last spring, her car broke down. It took her weeks to borrow the money she needed to fix it, so she had to rely on the bus. Even with school and her aunt’s help, she says it can be hard to fit in the credits she needs with work and the logistics of raising her son.
“I don’t have a traditional student life at all. I’m not going to be able to do all the things that college students are able to do because I have more responsibilities than others,” Moronatty says. “Child care is really what sets my whole schedule. I have to work around whatever I can get.” But Tracy isn’t giving up. For her, getting a degree means “breaking the chains, breaking that cycle of our family history of not going to school, of living in a lower-income community.” With a degree comes the promise of getting a full-time job — just one, not three! — that will pay the bills and maybe let her even save some money.
And so this month, she returned to campus for what she hopes will be her final year at Cal Poly. She’ll be taking a full course load — 16 units — to stay on track. The goal is to finish her degree in the spring. “That,” she says, “is my ultimate prize.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Caitlin's married surname.