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.