Higher Education:

More Information Could Help Student Parents Access Additional Federal Student Aid

GAO-19-522: Published: Aug 20, 2019. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2019.

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Melissa Emrey-Arras
(617) 788-0534
emreyarrasm@gao.gov

 

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(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

About 1 in 5 undergraduates were raising children in 2015-16, according to the Education Department. Child care costs can make it harder for them to graduate. An Education program helps students with low incomes pay for child care.

Among other things, we found:

Education is not accurately calculating program outcomes, such as the graduation rate.

Student parents may be eligible for bigger loans to cover child care but about two-thirds of the college websites we reviewed did not mention this.

We recommended that Education accurately calculate program results and encourage schools to publicize potential loan increases to cover child care.

About 56 percent of undergraduate student parents had a child aged 5 or younger in school year 2015-16

A woman pushing a baby in a stroller on a brick sidewalk

A woman pushing a baby in a stroller on a brick sidewalk

Multimedia:

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Melissa Emrey-Arras
(617) 788-0534
emreyarrasm@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

More than one in five undergraduate students were raising children, and about half of student parents left school without a degree, according to Department of Education (Education) data. In 2015-2016, an estimated 22 percent of undergraduates (4.3 million of 19.5 million) were parents. An estimated 55 percent of student parents were single parents, 44 percent were working full-time while enrolled, and 64 percent attended school part-time. Undergraduate student parents had fewer financial resources to fund their education than students without children. Nearly half of student parents reported paying for child care, with monthly costs averaging about $490. A higher percentage of student parents left school without a degree (52 percent) compared to students without children (32 percent) as of 2009 (the most recent data available).

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Education's Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program helped about 3,300 students pay child care costs for about 4,000 children in 2016-2017. Another 4,200 children were on waiting lists to receive assistance. Most CCAMPIS participants paid some child care fees after receiving subsidies—the median payment each month was about $160. Education measures participants' persistence in school and graduation rate to assess the performance of the CCAMPIS program. However, flaws in its calculations of these two measures prevented Education from reporting reliable results, making it difficult for Education and Congress to evaluate the program's effectiveness.

Some student parents could be eligible to increase their federal student loans to help pay for child care by asking their schools to include an allowance for dependent care expenses in their financial aid calculations. However, schools do not always publicize this allowance to current and prospective students. GAO reviewed the websites—where schools post other college cost information—of schools serving student parents and found that about two-thirds of these websites did not mention the allowance. Schools are not required—and Education does not encourage them—to inform student parents about the allowance. As a result, eligible student parents may be unaware of this option to request additional financial support to help them complete their degree.

Why GAO Did This Study

Student parents face many challenges, including paying for child care, that can make it difficult for them to complete a degree. The federal government supports student parents through Education's CCAMPIS program, which provides colleges funding for child care services, and federal student aid, which can also help students pay for child care. GAO was asked to provide information on student parents and the federal programs that support these students.

This report examines, among other objectives, what is known about the characteristics and degree completion of undergraduate students with children; what is known about the CCAMPIS program and how reliable Education's reported outcomes are; and to what extent selected schools publicize the option to increase federal student aid to help pay for child care. GAO analyzed 2009 and 2016 federal student data (the most recent available) and CCAMPIS program performance data, reviewed how the 62 schools that were awarded CCAMPIS grants in 2017 publicized the student aid option to help pay for child care, and reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations and agency documents. GAO interviewed officials from Education and selected schools.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations to Education to correct its CCAMPIS persistence and graduation rate calculations and to encourage schools to inform students about the option to increase federal student aid to help pay for child care. Education disagreed with GAO's recommendations, but described plans to improve its performance calculations. GAO continues to believe additional actions are warranted.

For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Education disagreed with this recommendation. The agency acknowledged one error in its persistence rate calculation that affected the accuracy of both the persistence rate and cost per persistent student measures that it reported in its fiscal year 2020 budget justification to Congress. It will correct this error in its fiscal year 2021 budget justification. In addition, Education stated that it would explore a different model for calculating the persistence rate. While we support exploring another model for calculating the persistence rate, Education's persistence rate calculation has additional errors that the agency needs to correct to accurately calculate the CCAMPIS program's persistence rate. For example, Education's calculations did not include students who transferred, which the agency has reported should be included in its persistence rate measure. Moreover, we identified other technical errors in the numerator and denominator of Education's formulas. For example, when calculating the persistence rate for CCAMPIS participants, Education counted students who declined to participate in the CCAMPIS program. We continue to believe that it is important for Education to report reliable program information to oversee and monitor the program and to provide accurate information to Congress. To do this, Education needs to take additional action to address all of the errors in its persistence calculations.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education should correctly calculate its CCAMPIS program persistence rate and cost per persisting student measures. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Education disagreed with this recommendation. The agency stated that it could address our concerns with a modification to the description of the measure published in the agency's budget justification. Specifically, Education said it plans to clarify that, for graduation rate data published for fiscal year 2020 and prior years, the term "within 3 years of enrollment" means within 3 years of enrolling in the CCAMPIS program. However, Education's calculations do not align with this measure either. As for future years, the agency stated that it will explore transitioning to a new model of tracking CCAMPIS students over time, which, as described, would be consistent with Education's standard graduation rate. However, Education noted that it must carefully balance the need to collect more informative and reliable data from grantees with the need to avoid adding unnecessary reporting burdens. We recognize that collecting the enrollment data needed to calculate the standard graduation rate could place a burden on grantee schools. Our recommendation gives Education the option to define a different college completion measure and calculate it correctly. We will consider closing this recommendation when Education takes steps to either collect the necessary enrollment data to calculate a standard 3-year graduation rate or correctly calculate a modified college completion measure.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education should either collect the CCAMPIS participant enrollment data needed to calculate a standard 3-year graduation rate or accurately define and calculate a different college completion measure. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Education disagreed with this recommendation. Education stated that it believes it would be inappropriate to indiscriminately encourage all schools to encourage student parents to borrow additional loans without considering a student's individual financial circumstances. We did not suggest that schools should encourage all student parents to borrow additional loans to pay for child care. Instead, we recommended that Education encourage schools to make students aware of this potential option-which federal law makes available to students-to allow them to make informed financial decisions based on their personal circumstances. We found that schools were not consistently sharing information with students about the dependent care allowance or how to request one. Furthermore, not all students may want to increase their student loans to finance their child care costs while in school; however, access to additional federal student loans could be a useful option for those students who may need it, so students should be aware of this potential option. Education also stated that it would be inappropriate for the agency to require schools to take actions that could erode their student loan repayment and default rates. We did not recommend that Education require schools to take any action but that the agency encourage schools to inform students about a potentially available federal resource. In addition, Education did not provide any evidence that being aware of or using the dependent care allowance would negatively affect student loan repayment or default rates.

    Recommendation: The Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid should encourage schools—through appropriate means, such as the Federal Student Aid Handbook—to inform students via school websites about the availability of the dependent care allowance and how to request the allowance. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

 

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