Twenty years ago, I was a 21-year-old college student staying up late to finish assignments, plotting out my career path between classes and paying $800 a month for childcare. Pulling together the little money I had to cover the tuition payment for my two-year-old daughter every 30 days required creativity, sacrifices and calculation after calculation. It was one of many bills — rent, car repairs, insurance and medications, groceries, gas for my station wagon, etc. — but it was the one that made graduating from William & Mary University as a young mother seem impossible.

Today, not much has changed for parents in college — except the skyrocketing costs of both childcare and earning a degree. Most people still don’t know that student parents exist, and even fewer people factor them in when working to address America’s most pressing issues.

At 25 years old, Araceli is raising four beautiful children in addition to working a full-time job and pursuing her degree at the University of the District of Columbia. She prides herself on being a hands-on mother, but the truth is, having her first child at 15 and trying to complete her education hasn’t been easy.

It has taken superhuman focus and determination to find time or energy after working long shifts to help her nine and 10-year-old boys with homework while her own assignments threatened to keep her up late into the night. She’s had to steal time for studying between feedings for her one-year-old son and girl boss pep talks with her five-year-old daughter. She struggles to coordinate pick-up and drop-off schedules and quality time, dreading the days when the cost of before and aftercare exhausts funds set aside for groceries or utilities.

Despite the adversity she’s encountered along the way — or perhaps because of it — Araceli is focused on one goal: completing her bachelor’s degree in human development and launching a program to support and empower other teen parents. Overcoming hardship isn’t enough for the ambitious mother; she’s determined to remove the roadblocks she encountered while parenting on campus.

As elected officials and policymakers explore strategies to address the intersection of millions of families struggling to stay afloat, a national labor shortage and the disruption COVID-19 has caused in the educational system, a recognition that affordable childcare is a game-changer for workers and for millions of students is imperative.

More than one in every five American college students is parenting a child while enrolled. 22% of all undergraduates enter classrooms every day shouldering some amount of worry about whether they’ll be able to afford consistent, quality care for one or more children. For these students, the cost of child care is a constant financial and psychological burden, distracting them from their studies, their work and their families, and causing more than half to leave college without a degree or certificate. Because student parents are disproportionately Black, Latinx and Indigenous women — groups that have been most impacted by the pandemic — it’s likely that these numbers will get worse without an investment in more affordable childcare soon.

“Build Back Better would make before and aftercare more available and affordable,” says Araceli. “As a parent, little things like this can really affect you because when your child is happy, you are too.”

While student parents haven’t been elevated in the national dialogue about President Biden’s Build Back Better bill (BBB), the plan has the potential to eradicate many of the unique and persistent challenges they face. Its policies and investments create a landmark opportunity to support a population of students that consistently earn higher GPAs than their non-parenting peers but are 10 times less likely to complete their degree in 5 years. By expanding the previous income requirements of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), BBB guarantees child care assistance for over 90% of working families with children under five years old. For students like Araceli, this landmark expansion of free, voluntary pre-kindergarten would make it easier for her to consistently work, but it would also accelerate her time in college — getting that degree in her hands and allowing her to start a career that will provide a better life for her children.

The workforce benefits of preschool expansion are clear. These investments have been credited with contributing to significant increases in labor force participation, particularly for working mothers with young children. Naturally, when parents are able to secure quality care for their children, they are capable of increasing the number of hours they work and accumulating valuable job skills. In turn, workers see greater increases in pay and contribute more significantly to the local economy. In Araceli’s home of Washington, DC, introducing two years of universal preschool increased maternal labor force participation by upwards of 10 percentage points. In addition to going to college, most student parents also hold some form of employment, with 46% working full-time.

The college completion benefits of preschool expansion and more affordable childcare are also clear, though less discussed. More than 1 million students have gone missing from higher education since the pandemic began, and student caregivers were 13 percentage points more likely to pull out of their classes during the pandemic than students without caregiving responsibilities. For parents, the top reason for potentially suspending their education was childcare. In a poll conducted by my organization, Generation Hope, which provides direct support and national advocacy for student parents in college, including Araceli, more than 60% of students indicated they’d missed at least one day of class in their last semester because of a lack of child care. Relatedly, a Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice survey found that nearly four in five students who used childcare couldn’t afford it and required support from other sources. These numbers paint a gloomy picture for higher education and our country, as a postsecondary credential offers the best pathway out of poverty. Without childcare investments, the long-term economic stability that can come from a degree, such as higher wages, job security and increased access to health insurance, will remain out of grasp for millions of students.  

An added dividend of childcare investments like the ones proposed in BBB is the significant lifelong educational and economic benefits to children. Children in quality early childhood programs have been shown to earn higher grades, graduate sooner and earn more as adults. Every child deserves the best chance at their own academic careers, but for most parents, this is a luxury.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average annual cost of infant care in Washington, DC, is $24,243, while care for an infant and a 4-year-old costs $43,355. A minimum wage worker in our city would need to work full time for 40 weeks, or from January to October, just to pay for child care for one infant. Under BBB, these investments and safeguards would become available to an unprecedented number of American families, bolstering the early learning system directly and the system of higher education by way of parents like Araceli.

By reducing the financial and psychological stress of securing reliable care, BBB eliminates a central barrier to student parents’ academic performance and matriculation. In one fell swoop, it eradicates so many hurdles and distractions experienced by Araceli and her children. Both mother and child gain greater economic mobility, a richer, more focused classroom experience, and a better chance of navigating through a myriad of systemic barriers. Research shows that a parent’s level of educational attainment is the most important factor in predicting how far a child will progress. In recognizing the student-parent experience, it becomes clear that BBB empowers us as a nation to invest in the education and earning potential of two generations at once.

Each day, we are bombarded by a mélange of familiar challenges and unprecedented disruptions, but America’s ability to fully realize an economic recovery from this pandemic will require looking at our perennial issues through a new lens. About 65% of all jobs in the U.S. require a postsecondary education and training beyond high school, and those who have suffered most in this pandemic have been those without a postsecondary credential — Black and Latinx mothers specifically. Childcare is not just about getting people to work; it’s also about getting people to class and to the graduation stage, particularly those who have been most excluded from these educational opportunities. Policymakers and thought leaders throughout the country should seize this pivotal and promising moment for change.

By my senior year of college, I could no longer afford the $800 in monthly daycare tuition for my daughter. I was on the dean’s list, student teaching at a local high school and working on an honors thesis, but lack of childcare almost made it all disappear. It wasn’t until I was able to enroll my daughter in Williamsburg’s Head Start program, reducing my monthly bill to just $25 a month, that I was able to breathe a little easier and focus on my last few classes. While holding my daughter’s hand, I graduated with high honors just a few months later.

Now, we have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to remove barriers for Araceli and the millions of promising students just like her to finally realize their full potential and for America to do the same.


Nicole Lynn Lewis is the founder of Generation Hope, an organization dedicated to ensuring that all student parents have opportunities to succeed and experience economic mobility.


If you’re interested in sharing your opinion on any cultural, political or personal topic, create an account and check out our how-to post to learn more.