The typical image of a college student is a fresh-faced freshman right out of high school, right? But that doesn’t reflect today’s reality. In fact, more than one-fifth of all college students are student parents, according to estimates by the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s nearly 4 million college students with children. Student parents are also more likely than students without children to be students of color. A third of student parents are Black, and more than a fifth are Latino. Colleges and universities must find ways to make college possible and affordable for them.


In between taking classes, writing papers, and studying for exams, millions of student parents hold part-time or full-time jobs while also managing the parental tasks of preparing meals, changing diapers, helping their kid(s) with homework, and taking them to and from daycare or school. But sadly, while student parents are working hard to raise their children and secure a better future for themselves and their children, the U.S. higher education system isn’t giving student parents the support they need to succeed.

Researchers at Ed Trust decided to investigate. Building on an earlier report about the “student affordability gap” — that is, how much students from low-income backgrounds must pay out of pocket to attend four-year public colleges in each state — our forthcoming report calculates the “true cost” of attending a four-year college for student parents who, in addition to paying for tuition and the usual costs of attendance, must often also pay for child care and other out-of-pocket costs.

With support from Imaginable Futures and in partnership with Generation Hope, Ed Trust researchers calculate the affordability gap for student parents using publicly available data and studies about the costs of college and child care. To inform our work, we gathered data from surveys of college students with children, interviews with them, and observations of them and their children.

The “student parent affordability gap” represents the major financial barriers student parents face, including the cost of child care, tuition, fees, housing, food, books and supplies, transportation and other expenses that are incurred in the pursuit of a higher education.

We explored cost by state and estimated the number of hours a student parent would need to work in each state to be able to afford the true cost of college and child care.

Here’s a summary of what we found:

  • The average national student parent affordability gap for students who attend public four-year institutions of higher education is $19,298, and ranges from $12,587 to $30,145, depending on the state.
  • If a student parent holds a minimum-wage job, they would need to work 54 hours per week, on average, for 50 weeks, to fully cover the net price of a higher education (i.e., the amount the student is responsible for, after all federal, state, and institutional aid has been applied) and the cost of center-based child care.
  • Depending on the state, a student parent would need to work anywhere from 33 hours per week to 81 hours per week to cover the combined costs of education and child care, our analysis shows.i This analysis focuses on four-year institutions, but we hope to highlight two-year institutions in the future.

Launching a Student Parent Inquiry

To initiate this study, we conducted a 28-question survey of student parents to determine how they can be better supported and get their input on potential policy and practice solutions.  

The survey had various sections, including a financial assessment section with questions about employment, hours worked, and a student’s current financial situation; and a parental assessment section that asked respondents how many children they have and what their ages are. Additionally, we inquired about the type of child care used, what it costs, why the respondent selected that option, and whether they can access and use a child-care subsidy. The survey also included a mental health section that assessed a respondent’s academic performance, mental and emotional health, and access to on-campus support. The recommendations we developed are based on the answers we received. We also interviewed 100 student parents to learn more about their motivations, specific concerns, child-care experiences, financial and other challenges, access to campus support, and to obtain additional feedback that helped inform our research and guide our recommendations. 

Highlights from the Survey and Interviews


Student parents face a host of challenges, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, as the results of our survey and interviews show:

  • Over 50% of the respondents attend school full time.
  • The majority of them spend 6-10 hours a week in class and an additional 6-10 hours a week studying.
  • Over 50% of respondents are employed, and more than a third of them work more than 40 hours a week.
  • Nearly three-quarters of the respondents (74%) said they have student loan debt.
  • More than a third (36%) described their financial situation as stressful.
  • Despite these challenges, nearly half of the respondents (45%) said they are hopeful that they will finish their degree, and only a fifth of them (20%) disagreed with that statement.


In interviews, student parents noted several ways in which institutions and policymakers could improve their college-going experience.

  • All the interviewees said they were motivated by their child(ren) to pursue postsecondary degrees and noted that child care and college attendance costs are the main obstacles to pursuing a higher education.
  • Student parents said they do not feel seen on campus, and that being visible on campus is important to them. Interviewees noted that hybrid/online courses help with time management and minimize the need for additional child care, which are both major concerns for them.
  • All the interviewees emphasized the importance of having a support system.

What Student Parents Want

The interviews highlighted the need for the following things:

  • More access to flexible and affordable child-care options
  • Data collection that identifies and disaggregates student parents on campus and connects them to resources and programs — such as SNAP, WIC, and TRIO — for which they might be eligible
  • Targeted training for campus faculty and staff

To learn more about the student parent affordability gap, and what schools, states, and the federal government can do to help more student parents enroll in college and graduate with a degree, sign up to receive our upcoming student parent affordability report when it becomes available.

[1] The Education Trust analysis of the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System (IPEDS) data for the 2019-2020 school year, Center for American Progress Cost of Childcare Tool, US Department of Labor 2019 Minimum Wages by State,