Last summer, after receiving my bachelor’s degree, I moved from a rural Texas town to New York City with my 3-year-old daughter, Amora. In Texas, I’d had family, friends, and the best support system a single mom could ask for. But New York was the site of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where I’d just been accepted. It felt like a fair trade-off.
When I searched for child-care options on Columbia University’s Office of Work/Life website, I found that the listed resources and programs were unaffordable for a single-income family. But, to my excitement, I found the Back-Up Care Advantage Program, which describes its services as “care for anyone you have or feel a responsibility toward” for when “you still need to get to work, teach your courses, attend to your lab, or write a paper.” Columbia fronts the bill but asks parents for a $2 co-pay per hour, per child.
I quickly scrolled to see if I’d qualify.
“You can take advantage of the Back-Up Care Advantage Program®, if you are a full-time Columbia Officer of Instruction, Officer of Research, Officer of the Library, Officer of Administration, Non-Union Support Staff, Post-Docs (including Post-Doc Research Fellows, Research Scholars, and Research Scientists, regardless of eligibility for other University benefits) Doctoral student, enrolled either full-time or part-time, Teaching Fellow not in a Ph.D. program,” I read.
I emailed the Office of Work/Life to see if I understood correctly. Was the majority of the student population really excluded? “If you are a PhD level student, you are potentially eligible for the program; Master’s students are not eligible,” a coordinator wrote back. Columbia’s undergrads don’t qualify either.
As a result, last year, I took out about $9,000 in Graduate PLUS loans to pay a sitter $20 per hour to pick Amora up from school on Tuesdays and Thursdays while I commuted from work to home. If I was in class or working on big assignments, friends and classmates watched her. Amora loves hanging out with other trusted adults (ice cream and new books are usually involved), but the long-term financial costs are scary, especially if her future college tuition is considered.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, child care is vital for the 4.8 million parents in college, but because of federal funding shortfalls and long waiting lists, only 15 percent of the millions eligible receive subsidized care. For single moms at New York–area universities, it can be common to spend several days or weeks scouring for options just to wind up with significant student-loan debt.
Amina (some names have been changed) is a 39-year-old mom living in Brooklyn. Initially, her mother watched her 11-month-old daughter while she studied for her master’s at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. But when her mother passed away unexpectedly, Amina was left scrambling to find child care. And when she told her professors about the unforeseen loss, one of them told her that she should consider taking a break from her studies.
NYU offers a subsidy for full-time grad students, but it’s $200 per fall or spring semester, which doesn’t even cover one week of full-time child care. Back when Amina was pregnant, before her mother passed, she turned to NYU’s website for options but didn’t find anything. Since she had a full-time school load, she might’ve qualified for a subsidy through NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services, but it’s state-mandated that low-income student parents work a minimum of 17.5 hours per week.
“There was no support, but I couldn’t afford to take time off of school to find child care … my success determined our financial well-being,” she explained.
Barbara Gault, the executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, traces the lack of support for single moms in school to the welfare-reform movement of the 1990s, which emphasized immediate work over longer-term skills development. Even now, states’ child-care-subsidy requirements mirror the limitations on education set in place during that era.
“Many argue that these limitations were based on negative attitudes toward low-income mothers,” Gault explains.
When single moms pursue their education at distinguished but expensive universities, their needs for child care are often dismissed by state social services. “They think if you can afford to go to NYU then you can afford child care,” Amina said. “I was in an emotional whirlwind … I didn’t have it in me to go through any agencies again.”
Amina isn’t wrong. Helen Blank, National Women’s Law Center’s Director of Child Care and Early Learning, said the misconception is that “many moms do need to work and that, wrongly, school is a luxury,” which explains why some single-mom students are living in poverty and working low-income jobs.
Amina arranged for her cousin to babysit at a low cost, which she paid for with student loans, and she graduated on time in May 2012. She now works as a marketing analyst, but is still paying off more than $200,000 in debt accrued from her NYU tuition and child care.
It’s not just financial support that’s often absent, but an understanding of the kind of logistical and lifestyle challenges that single moms can face. Take, for instance, Shanice Lyons, a 23-year-old mother from Long Island who is pursuing a bachelor’s in legal studies at St. John’s University. Her 7-year-old daughter, Victoria, is blind, developmentally delayed, and gets around in a wheelchair because she has congenital conditions known as optic nerve hypoplasia and nystagmus. Since Victoria has disabilities, Lyons had tremendous difficulty finding a day care that would accept her daughter until Victoria was admitted into the Lavelle School for the Blind.
Lyons takes classes online so she can work full-time as a paralegal to support herself and her daughter. She’s also responsible for paying for Victoria’s medical equipment and home adjustments that aren’t covered by Medicare. (For instance, a stairlift for her wheelchair costs $3,200.) Initially, she didn’t want to tell her professors that she was a single mom.
“I didn’t feel like the school would be accepting, and when I did tell a professor what all I was dealing with, he didn’t believe me,” she said. “He couldn’t believe that a 23-year-old could have a 7-year-old with disabilities. I actually brought in her hospital records to prove it.” That wasn’t the only time a professor doubted her situation. Shanice said she had to convince skeptical educators on multiple occasions.
“Just because there’s one of me doesn’t mean that my daughter doesn’t get the best life,” she said. “Because she wakes up so much at night, I usually hold my daughter in one arm and hold a book in my other hand to study.”
Helen Blank, of the National Women’s Law Center, says that all moms have trouble with costs of child care, but low-income moms obviously struggle the most.
“You would think that child-care access for mothers in school would be higher on the agenda … there’s been bipartisan support from legislators but the money isn’t forthcoming,” she says. “It can help reduce the need to be on welfare because it allows parents to be qualified for long-term higher-paying positions. Early child care is also really great for kids because it prepares them for school.”
A 2013 study of student parents at Monroe Community College in upstate New York showed that students who used the campus child-care center were nearly three times as likely to graduate or go on to strive for a bachelor’s degree than those who did not take advantage of the service.
Samantha Pezzolanti, a 26-year-old mom pursuing a B.S. in professional and technical writing at City Tech-CUNY, found that even when programs are available, they often aren’t realistic for student parents’ schedules.
“If you have to take classes at night because you work in the day, the child-care center is usually closed,” she says. “And if you need the care while you’re working, it’s not possible because you have to be on campus while your kid is at the center.”
“If affordable, quality child care were more readily available to families at all income levels, as it is in most other high-income countries, we would be able to support college students as well as working families in general, and we’d be able to move away from the vilification of low-income families who need help that we’ve seen recent decades,” Gault from IWPR says.
A couple months ago, I didn’t have the budget to hire a sitter, so I decided to bring Amora to class. I was anxious because I didn’t know if she’d be a distraction. She, on the other hand, was excited because I told her she could play games on my iPad. As fellow students were rushing to class, outside of the classroom I ran into a professor I had last year.
“I can take her to the park and bring her back by 7,” he told me. Amora’s eyes lit up. “I have a daughter, too. She’s older now. But, yeah, let’s go to the park.”
I handed him the quesadilla and rice I’d packed for her as my eyes welled up with tears of gratitude.
But why was the onus on my compassionate educator? Single moms aren’t welfare queens. Many are busting their butts to succeed despite the infrastructure and lack of support working against them.
This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit devoted to journalism about inequality.