After more than a decade of working towards her undergraduate degree, 31-year-old single-mother Elyzabeth Frontaan graduates this spring. But instead of celebrating her impending graduation from Worcester State University in Massachusetts, Frontaan is worrying how she’ll pay back the $38,000 in student loans she will owe while also paying for her four-year-old son’s child care.
Frontaan spends approximately $125 per week on between 30 to 35 hours of child care for her son, Arlo. This cost eats up the majority of the $200 weekly income she makes as a part-time COVID-19 ambassador and intern for the Marlborough Board of Health, where she communicate safety and health information on COVID-19. She is sure that once she graduates, and the pandemic federal student loan forbearance period ends, her monthly loan payments will break her already stretched budget. Even if she’s able to get an income-based adjustment, Frontaan fears delaying paying off her student loan due to child care expenses will never free her of debt.
“I want to move forward,” says Frontaan, who currently lives with her mother to save money on bills. “But I don’t know how much progress I can make in a single household income with all those barriers.”
Women caught between two national struggles
Many American women sit at the intersection of two crises, the nation’s mounting student debt burden and the growing inaccessibility of affordable child care, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, putting thousands of women at risk of defaulting on their loans and spiraling into debt.
The pandemic has led to a massive collapse of the child care infrastructure, forcing many women to either cut their hours or drop out of the workforce entirely to provide home-based care, making it even more difficult for women already struggling to pay off loans.
“We’ve lost a generation of work force participation gains for women,” says Shana Bartley, an expert in child care and income inequality at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). “And, investments in child care and our broader caregiving infrastructure are going to be key to our economic recovery.”
In September, women lost four times as many jobs as men, according to the NWLC, with women of color faring the worst.
“I think there is a tremendous opportunity ahead of us,” says Bartley. Bartley is referring to proposals on both student debt, and child care from the new administration of President Joe Biden.“It’s really important we’re telling the truth about how these issues intersect…student debt and canceling student debt are not separate from [investing in child care].”
Women in the United States collectively owe nearly two-thirds of all national student debt, according to the American Association of University Women, amounting to $929 billion.
The situation is even more dire for mothers attending post-secondary institutions, who face additional barriers to paying off their student loans.
More than one in five undergraduate students are raising dependent children, according to a 2019 Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) report, and more than two-thirds are women. Black women are more likely to be student-parents than their white peers. Roughly half of all student-parents default on their loans within twelve years of graduation, according to a 2017 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP).
Women who are student-parents are often at an even greater financial disadvantage in part because they’re more likely than their male counterparts to be single parents, according to the IWPR. Research also shows single parents tend to take on more loan debt, according to the IWPR, and face more difficulty paying off loans than non-single parents, according to CAP.
‘It’s ridiculous’: Mom juggles $90,000 student debt, child care cost
Janice Jackson, a 36-year-old mother of three, says that paying for childcare has “absolutely” impacted her ability to pay off her student loans. While in graduate school, Jackson and her husband welcomed their first child, a joyous occasion for the new parents, but also an expensive one. “My child care bill was more than my rent,” says Jackson. She ended up putting her loans into forbearance while in school, but the interest on Jackson’s loans continued to pile up. She now owes roughly $90,000. Even with a combined six-figure family income, Jackson says child care, which she relies on approximately 40 hours a week, still impacts her ability to pay off her student debt and that because of their loans, the couple has negative wealth.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Jackson, who has been paying off her loans on top of child care costs that now rival her mortgage. “You just get stuck in a place where you can’t move forward.”
Child care expenses, in addition to other costs, force many student-parents to take on higher loans which impacts their ability to pay them off once they graduate, says Susana Contreras-Mendez, an expert on student-parents at IWPR.
Polices aimed at student parents could help borrowers
Specific policies aimed at helping student-parents repay their loans can help make monthly student loan payments more manageable for mothers like Frontaan and Jackson, says Viviann Anguiano, Associate Director of Post-Secondary Education at CAP.
As it currently stands, federal borrowers can have their monthly student loan payments adjusted based on their discretionary income, which is calculated by looking at how much money above 150% of the federal poverty level a family has leftover in taxable income based on family size and state. Because these plans, known as income-driven repayment plans (IDR), use a formula which looks at household size, and not composition, they fail to consider that a child is likely to have costs associated with them such as child care, says Anguiano. One possible way to fix this calculation, she says, is for IDR formulas to adjust the calculation based on how many children are in the household. This would mean families with children would be expected to pay less in student loans per month.
Even before students leave campus, Contreras-Menez says there are ways to help student-parents with debt. Expanding access and funding for federal programs which provide low-income families with on-campus child care, could help alleviate financial burdens of child care and student debt, says Contreras-Mendez.
For now, mothers like Frontaan are in a holding pattern, waiting to see if the new administration will help alleviate the substantial burden on their shoulders, crushing student debt, and lack of access to affordable child care.
“It’s excruciating to have to be put in a position to have to choose between childcare and just continuing to defer loans,” says Frontaan, “and knowing in the back of your mind it’s not going away until you face it, and even when you face it, you can’t afford it because it’s outrageous.”