Bronsyn Foster's 8-year-old son wondered why his mother was still in school.
"He said, 'Why couldn't you just finish school before you had me?'" said Foster, now 48. "It's hard for a little kid to understand why you can't be around more often."
Yet he was one of the main reasons she was, at nearly 40-years-old, back in the classroom. After the single mother was laid off from her job as a graphic designer at a newspaper during the Great Recession, her path forward was a giant question mark. She had dropped out of college years before. And so, in 2009, she enrolled at the University of Washington to become a speech language pathologist.
"I was worried if I didn't finish my degree, I'd never have a job that paid enough to take care of the both of us," Foster said.
It was tough being the mother of a young child and a student again. She rode buses and ferries for hours each day to commute from their house in Kitsap County to The University of Washington, so that she wouldn't have to relocate her son. "I wanted to keep things as stable as I could for him," Foster said.
Also, she needed her mother, who lived nearby, to take care of her son. She was living off federal student loans, and childcare wouldn't fit in her budget. Still, she realized her mother was making sacrifices. "She planned her work around her time with my son," Foster said. And now, she said, "my mother doesn't have much money — or any — for retirement."
Today more than 1 in 5 undergraduate students are parents, yet colleges aren't doing enough to ease these students' financial burdens, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
The U.S. Department of Education has a program designed to provide support to low-income mothers and fathers pursuing their bachelor's degrees through childcare support and funding.
While the program helped to cover the childcare costs of some 4,000 children of parent students in 2016-2017, another 4,200 children were stuck on a waiting list for assistance.
Under that program, student parents could also be eligible for federal loans to help pay for their childcare expenses, by asking their colleges to include an allowance for dependent care expenses in their financial aid calculations. However, colleges don't always adequately publicize this information, the GAO found. Two-thirds of the college websites the watchdog group reviewed made no mention of the option.
"Parents who are trying to build a better life for their children through education should be given every opportunity available to access quality, affordable childcare while completing their degree," said U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., in statement in response to the report.
For her part, Foster said she had no clue there were additional financial resources available to students with children such as herself.
Students with children are less likely to graduate than other students, said Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of SavingforCollege.com. "If their babysitter is sick, they have to stay home from school, missing class," Kantrowitz said. "This affects academic performance and eventually whether they graduate."
Half of parents with children said they paid for childcare, which cost them on average nearly $500 a month, the GAO found.
Students with children can ask for their cost of attendance to include childcare costs, which could increase their financial aid, said Betsy Mayotte, the founder of The Institute for Student Loan Advisors. "They can also use existing childcare to request an adjustment that could decrease their estimated family contribution, which can also potentially increase their aid eligibility," she said.
Some scholarships, she added, can also be used to pay for childcare. For example, the Soroptomist's Live Your Dream Award, offers women students up to $16,000 to pay for college and childcare expenses.
And many students with children don't realize the Education Department offers a special grant for childcare, Kantrowitz said.
"Often, they return to school to finish their education in an attempt to break themselves out of a cycle of poverty," Kantrowitz said. "Unfortunately, while colleges have good daycare for faculty and staff, many don't have it for students."