When Lesley Del Rio goes to the library to do her college math homework, she often has a study buddy: her precocious 8-year-old son, Leo.
Del Rio is working on her associate degree; Leo is working on third grade.
And Del Rio is not alone: More than 1 in 5 college students in the U.S. are raising kids. That's more than 4 million undergraduates, and they are disproportionately women and people of color. Of those students, more than half will leave school without getting a degree.
That's all, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog. The report, first obtained by NPR, found that schools often aren't giving student parents information that could help them access untapped federal money to pay for child care.
Melissa Emrey-Arras, who led the GAO's review, says, "These parents have a lot going on in their lives in terms of school and young children, and we think it's important to make information easily available for them about financial aid options so that they can make choices that will help them."
Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat and ranking member of the Senate education committee, said in a statement that the report "shows there are simple steps that colleges and the [U.S.] Department of Education can take to better inform student parents of their financial aid options. The lack of affordable, high-quality child care shouldn't hold anyone back from achieving their dreams."
Access to child care is one of the biggest barriers student parents face. For Del Rio, who works full time, attending night classes at her community college presented a real challenge. "Who's gonna take care of my child then?" she recalls thinking. "There isn't child care open until 10 p.m."
"When you're a parent, you're spending hours upon hours each day providing care to your kids," says Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, who studies student parents at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "When you layer that on top of college courses, studying, group projects, office hours ... child care becomes a really critical piece of that puzzle."
And child care can be expensive. According to Emrey-Arras, in many states, the cost of child care is more than the cost of tuition at an in-state public four-year university. "It's not an insignificant cost," she says.
Student parents can apply to use federal financial aid, including loans, to help pay for child care, but the GAO found many students are leaving this money on the table, often because they don't know it's there.
Students have to ask their college to provide a "dependent care allowance" — basically, aid for child care — through forms like this. And they sometimes have to prove — through a day care bill or a birth certificate — that they actually need it. But the GAO found many schools aren't telling students this is an option.
"Over 2.5 million student parents could actually be eligible for additional federal student aid," explains Emrey-Arras. (That's about half of all student parents.)
"It's hard to know how to ask for something if you don't know it exists."
When GAO researchers looked at colleges that have active programs geared to student parents, they found that about two-thirds of those schools did not mention on their websites that students could apply for more aid to help pay for child care.
"Some students may be eligible for additional federal student aid and they should talk to their schools to see if that's a possibility," says Emrey-Arras.
This comes at a time when finding child care — especially on campus — can be difficult. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, child care has been declining on college campuses across the country for many years. Less than half of public four-year and public two-year colleges reported having a campus child care center in 2015. And when campuses do have child care, there are often long waitlists.
Last year, Congress approved additional funding for a program called CCAMPIS, or Child Care Access Means Parents in School, which provides colleges with money for child care services. The program, run by the Department of Education, served about 3,000 student parents in 2016-17.
Student parents make up 22% of the undergraduate population, according to the GAO. And given the push to improve college graduation rates — and cut down on folks who are having trouble paying back student loans, but never finished their degree — Reichlin Cruse of the Institute for Women's Policy Research says it's time to start thinking of student parents in "a holistic way."
"You have to talk about child care when you're talking about our goals around postsecondary or college attainment," she says.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
College is hard enough, right? Raising kids and trying to get a degree is a whole other level of hard. And this is life for a lot of people. Twenty percent of all college students are also parents, and they are more likely than others to drop out. The federal government is now studying this for the first time. NPR's Elissa Nadworny got an early look at a new report that says schools should be doing more to help student parents.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: In between Little League practice and making dinner, college student Lesley Del Rio is studying for an exam. She's working towards her associate's degree in Denver, Colo. She says her best study partner is her 8-year-old son.
LESLEY DEL RIO: His name is Leonardo - after the Ninja Turtle, not the artist.
NADWORNY: Being a single mom and trying to get a degree has been a challenge. She says there's times when she had to pick between time with her son and classes. In many of those moments, she says, she picked Leo.
DEL RIO: It hasn't been flawless. It hasn't been easy.
NADWORNY: She also works full-time, and she's become a master at squeezing in schoolwork.
DEL RIO: It's me staying up late, doing that at night. It's on the weekends while he goes to the park. It's during the week after work.
MELISSA EMREY-ARRAS: There are so many student parents going to college these days, which I know is shocking to a lot of folks.
NADWORNY: That's Melissa Emrey-Arras, a researcher at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. More than 4 million college students are raising children. That's according to a new report first obtained by NPR from the federal watchdog.
EMREY-ARRAS: A lot of folks tend to think of college students as single 18-, 19-year-old students without any kids.
NADWORNY: The report found that many of these student parents - about half - are dropping out before they get their degree. And this matters because then you don't have the degree to get a better job. And if you have loans, you're more likely to struggle paying those back. One major barrier for student parents - child care. It can be expensive.
EMREY-ARRAS: Many states, the cost of child care actually exceeds the cost of tuition at an in-state four-year public university. So it's not an insignificant cost.
NADWORNY: The thing that many student parents don't realize - they are eligible to use federal financial aid dollars to cover child care costs. It's called a dependent care allowance. And it's not automatic, so students have to ask their college to provide aid for child care. And they often have to prove through a day care bill or even a birth certificate that they, indeed, need it.
But students don't know they can get this aid because schools aren't advertising it. There are schools with active student parent programs, but when GAO researchers looked at their websites...
EMREY-ARRAS: We found that two-thirds of the school websites did not mention the option to increase federal student aid to pay for child care.
NADWORNY: And that lack of knowledge translates to real money left on the table.
EMREY-ARRAS: Over 2 1/2 million student parents could actually be eligible for additional federal student aid, but it's hard to know to ask for something if you don't know it exists.
NADWORNY: This comes at a time when child care on campus is declining. So last year, Congress authorized additional funding for child care on campus. In a statement, the Washington Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat and ranking member of the Senate's education committee, said the GAO report highlights an important need - quote, "the lack of affordable high-quality child care shouldn't hold anyone back from achieving their dreams."
For Lesley Del Rio in Denver, she's working towards her dream of getting a degree with Leo in tow. They often do their homework together.
DEL RIO: Sometimes when he's struggling with a problem, you know, I, like, will rub his back and, you know, make sure that he's OK. And he does that to me. And so, you know, he mimics me as, you know, as that support.
NADWORNY: She says he holds her accountable, and he tells her he's proud of her.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "INNER SENSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.