Opinion | Head Start centers in community colleges can change the child-care equation

There’s nothing like a good match, and a partnership announced this week between the National Head Start Association and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) to put more Head Start facilities on community college campuses sets up a perfect couple.

Just look at the numbers to see how well they fit: More than 1 in 5 college students are parents. About 1 in 10 are single mothers, and nearly two-thirds of those mothers whose children are younger than 6 live at or below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, about 180,000 spots in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start early education program, which is supposed to serve that population, are empty. Only 100 or so locations are on community college campuses.

Put these two realities together, as project-funders Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation and ECMC Foundation have done, and the opportunity becomes clear.

Single mothers are much less likely to complete a degree than are students without children. All evidence suggests that on-campus child-care services can change the equation — at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., for instance, use of those facilities multiplied parents’ graduation rates by more than three times. Yet the share of public institutions nationwide offering on-site supervision is declining.

The trouble, in many cases, is money. Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, described how three child-care facilities in her network of campuses shrank to one. Many student parents couldn’t afford to pay for all-day services, and CCBC, after the pandemic tightened its budget, couldn’t afford to pay to subsidize them.

The Head Start answer is elegant in this context. The program comes at no cost to those who qualify, and for any center to operate, it must also secure a 20 percent philanthropic match. Colleges can effectively provide that match by “leasing” the space for the program, except at no charge. Thus, they can offer a child-care option to their students that is essentially free to them, and free to the students, too.

Head Start, in turn, ends up with a robust population from which to recruit children to educate while their parents have time to pursue their education, too. What’s more, college students studying early learning can get hands-on experience right there in the centers. And all student parents can access the help Head Start provides, for example, with applying for public assistance programs.

There’s still work to be done. The funding announced this week covers an initial planning phase that will allow ACCT and Head Start to figure out the details: What makes a given college a good candidate? Which can offer the most, and who needs the most? How will schools ensure students actually take advantage of the option? Will physical spaces need retrofitting? Will the hours these facilities operate need to expand beyond what’s typical for the program?

Lack of child-care access is a countrywide crisis and costs an estimated $122 billion every year in lost earnings, productivity and revenue. The struggle to fix it requires a host of solutions, many of which must come from legislators. Think increased government investment, expanded tax credits and reduced barriers to entry for providers.

But this kind of large-scale change has proved elusive, which means smaller solutions are also essential. They can help, and they’re actually within reach. The beauty of this one, as Abigail Seldin of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation put it to us, is that it doesn’t require a miracle, and neither will it take an act of Congress.

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