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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Fast Facts

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

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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Education The Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education should correctly calculate its CCAMPIS program persistence rate and cost per persisting student measures. (Recommendation 1)
Open
Education disagreed with this recommendation as it believes the currently reported persistence data are sufficiently accurate to support effective program management and oversight. In its FY 2022 Congressional Budget Justification, Education stated that the agency had corrected the errors in its calculations of the program persistence measures in response to our report and, as of October 2021, Education officials have provided general descriptions of the changes the agency has made to its calculations. We appreciate that Education is taking steps to ensure that it is correctly calculating its program persistence measures. However, to close this recommendation, Education should provide its corrected calculations for GAO to review and confirm that Education has corrected all of the errors we identified.
Department of Education 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)
Open
Education initially disagreed with this recommendation. As we stated in our report, we recognize that collecting the enrollment data needed to calculate the standard graduation rate could place a burden on grantee schools. Our recommendation included the option to define a different college completion measure and calculate it correctly. In its FY 2021 notice inviting grant applications, Education indicated that the agency plans to collect the information needed to calculate the share of student parents that complete their degree programs within 150 or 200 percent of the published program length. The notice states that Education is transitioning toward a new semester-to-semester cohort model to calculate degree completion rates for program participants. We appreciate that Education is taking steps to collect the enrollment data needed to make these calculations. To close this recommendation, however, Education should provide us with its plans for defining program cohorts and collecting the required data, along with the updated formula and planned calculations, so that we can confirm the accuracy of these calculations.
Department of Education 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)
Open
While Education agreed with the spirit of this recommendation, it disagreed with the recommendation itself due to concerns that an increased emphasis on the availability of the dependent care allowance could lead to additional borrowing that might not be appropriate for all students based on their financial circumstances. As of October 2021, Education has added a note to the 2019-2020 and subsequent FSA Handbooks that, when counseling students, schools should make clear the availability of the allowance and how to request it. Adding this language to the handbook is certainly helpful, but does not fully address this recommendation. Encouraging schools to provide this information to students who proactively contact a school's financial aid office to discuss their finances will likely make this information available to a relatively small number of students; however, it does nothing to make this information more broadly available to all students who may benefit from it. We are not recommending that schools should encourage all student parents to borrow more to pay for child care. Instead, we recommend that Education encourage schools to make students aware of this potential option-which federal law makes available to students-via school websites to allow them to make informed financial decisions based on their personal circumstances. We will close this recommendation when Education takes additional actions to encourage schools to make this information more broadly available to students on their websites.

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