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Community college funds are needed to help students with child care costs, local administrators say

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Since 1993, the state has allocated money to the community college system to help students afford child care. The state Senate’s budget proposal would give an additional $1.2 million in recurring funds each of the next two years to the program.

But even more is needed to make a dent in the student need, said Brenda Long, director of financial aid at Carteret Community College. This past academic year, the college was able to help only three students with the grants. Thirteen were on the waiting list, and many more probably did not know to apply, she said.

“That’s 13 students that we could have on campus, improving their quality of life, but we just don’t have the funding to, or we don’t know quickly enough to be able to assist them,” Long said. “… We’re not notified until mid-to-late September that we have any funding at all, so these students have missed out on fall semester.”

The program needs more funding and wider eligibility, and communities need more child care investment to address systemic supply issues, local administrators of the grants told EdNC.

Community college students’ child care needs are difficult to quantify. Colleges do not have a way of knowing how many students do not engage with school because of child care barriers. And most colleges do not ask questions about child care when students stop coming to school.

The North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation surveyed a representative sample of 802 working parents with children younger than 5 in 2020, finding that 45% of respondents reported dropping out of college or training, or declining training, because of insufficient child care.

“I’ve heard it time and time again — students who will say, ‘Kindra, if it wasn’t for this program, I would not be here,'” said Kindra Moore-Smith, who oversees child care grant funding at Fayetteville Technical Community College.

The college was able to help 37 students pay for child care this past year, but less than half of the college’s funding comes from the state program. The college keeps a waitlist of about 40 students, Moore-Smith said.

“I know I’m probably really reaching,” Moore-Smith said. “It would be a dream for me (that) if you are a student parent and you have children, that you would automatically get funding.”

A drop in the bucket, but an important resource

The community college grant program allocated a base of $20,000 to each college in 2022-23, plus an additional $3.88 for each of the college’s students who are enrolled full-time in a curriculum program. In 2022-23, colleges received a total of $3,038,215, which included an extra $1.2 million in nonrecurring funds.

“In the scheme of child care, that expense is just so high,” said Maggie West, director of student services at Durham Technical Community College. “… (The allotment) doesn’t go very far in terms of the number of students based on the level of funding.”

The average cost for center-based child care for a toddler in North Carolina is $9,916, according to a 2023 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, or about 10% of the median income for a married couple and 33% of the median income for a single mother.

The grants are helpful, West said, in that they are flexible enough to fill in gaps in funding from other supports. The state’s child care subsidy program, which is mainly funded through a federal block grant, has its own set of requirements around income, work status, and licensing of the facility.

The community college grants, on the other hand, have relatively few statewide requirements on administration and eligibility. The community college system instructs colleges to coordinate with other local agencies to determine need. Students apply with their financial aid offices and, after the services are provided, colleges reimburse providers. The amount the grants reimburse depends on the college.

Unlike the traditional child care subsidy program, the community college grants can be used for unlicensed providers, grandparents, and personal nannies.

The need is critical for entire industries and communities, said Maggie Brown, vice president of instruction and student support at Carteret Community College.

“In terms of keeping folks in agriculture, and keeping folks in those critical services that affect our entire state that are normally located in small rural areas, you have to support economic drivers if you want to keep that area thriving,” Brown said. “Child care, of course, is one of those critical services just like health care, that if it is lacking in that community, that community is not going to exist, or it’ll just be a commuter community because all of your resources are 30 miles down the road.”

Getting the money to students

Multiple administrators spoke to EdNC about a lack of available child care in their communities. In some cases, that made it harder for colleges to spend all of their funding since the start of the pandemic.

The range of how much colleges spent in the 2021-22 school year, the latest available data, is wide. Fayetteville Tech spent every penny of its allotment of $119,620. Sandhills Community College, on the other hand, spent $2,130 out of $54,905.

That school year, Sandhills was able to help only one student. This year, they are helping four students with one child each, said Kellie Shoemake, vice president of student services at the college.

Sarah Barber, a financial aid advisor at the college who oversees the grants, tried everything she could think of to market the program to students who need it the most. She reached out to students in programs like nursing that she knew had in-person requirements. She requested the subsidy application form from the local Department of Social Services so she could help students figure out their eligibility for other supports. She also made sure students who listed dependents on their FAFSA applications automatically heard about the available funds.

Now Barber said she thinks there simply are not enough child care options at which students can use the funds.

“I think now it’s more of an availability issue,” she said.

The team at Sandhills also said making the grant eligible to students enrolled in continuing education courses, students in the military, and fully-online students would open up resources to parents.

Moore-Smith of Fayetteville Tech said besides basic marketing strategies — fliers around campus, emails, social media posts, and in-person events — she relies on relationships and word-of-mouth to make sure the funds get in the hands of those who need them most.

Moore-Smith described a different local child care landscape than Sandhills’. She said programs are strained, but that she is normally able to find an open slot for students’ children.

She also makes sure to share other community resources from local organizations, such as NC Pre-K, Head Start, and Smart Start, if she does not have the grant funds to help immediately. She said her predecessor taught her the importance of holistically meeting students’ needs.

“If you can listen, and if you can be kind and understanding of where a student is coming from and where they’re at at that particular point, you’re going to be successful,” she said.

Larger problems

Many pointed to larger issues than a single grant program, or a single college, can confront. Low pay for early childhood teachers and a lack of public investment in care and education for young children must be addressed before families can rely on care to go back to school or back to work, Long said.

“It’s a much broader issue than the community college can manage, ” Long said. “This is a statewide issue. It is a we don’t pay enough issue. It’s a we don’t have the facilities issue. I don’t know how the community college would get involved in that part of it. I mean, we can educate (child care teachers) all day long. Getting them to work in a field where they actually make a living wage — that’s a major hurdle.”

Brown said she sees the community college being situated at the right nexus of preparation of teachers and supports for students, but that more investment is needed.

“I think that the community college is perfectly resourced and ready to both prepare child care workers and to distribute child care funds,” she said. “I see the gap being at the state and federal levels.”

Editor’s Note: Hannah McClellan contributed reporting for this story.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.