College students with young kids – especially mothers – find themselves in a time crunch

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<span class="caption">Mothers in college have less time to study than students without children. </span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/woman-with-baby-son-working-royalty-free-image/968890474?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:10'000 Hours/Getty Images">10'000 Hours/Getty Images</a></span>
Mothers in college have less time to study than students without children. 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

We found that college students who have children had significantly less time for college than their childless peers – about 4.3 hours less per week, to be specific – and that this “time poverty” is greatest for mothers of preschool-age children. That’s according to a 2021 study of 11,195 U.S. college students.

Our study found other trends as well. Student parents also often had to care for children while they were studying. The most “time-poor” parents sacrificed a great deal more of their free time for their studies than childless students who had more time and could complete an academic degree more rapidly.

Among all student parents, those with the youngest children – and mothers in particular – had the least time for college and were likelier to enroll in college part time.“ For example, parents with children less than a year old spent a higher proportion of their free time – time left over after all necessary tasks – on their education than any other group. This was perhaps an attempt to make up for the fact that they had less time for their studies.

In addition, despite having less available time for their studies in the first place, mothers on average spent more time on their education than fathers. For example, among parents with children ages 1-5, mothers had 8.4 fewer hours per week to spend on their studies than fathers with children of the same age. Still, these mothers spent almost two more hours per week on their education than fathers.

Why it matters

This time difference matters, because college students with children are more likely to drop out and take longer to complete their degrees than college students without children, even though on average they have higher GPAs, according to a study we published in 2018.

In our 2021 study, having less time for college explained much of the difference in time spent on education between college students who have children and those who don’t, as well as between mothers and fathers. It also explained differences among these groups in part-time enrollment.

However, mothers and fathers who lived with other adult family members who could help with child care were able to devote more time to their college work. They also spent less time studying while simultaneously caring for children, and they enrolled in college full time more often. Each additional adult family member living with a student parent increased the time they spent on their studies by over 1.5 hours each week. It also increased the time student parents spent studying without children present by 5 percentage points and their probability of enrolling full time by over 2 percentage points. This suggests that access to child care is critical to the progress of student parents.

Improving outcomes for student parents is important not just for students but for their families. One reason for this is that achieving a college degree is linked to better economic and educational outcomes for their children.

What still isn’t known

We don’t yet know which kinds of supports might work best to improve outcomes for college students who are parents, but there are several potential solutions.

On-campus child care at colleges in the U.S. currently serves only about 5% of student parents’ needs and has declined over the last several decades.

One possible approach could be to invest more systematically in on-campus child care centers at colleges to support student parents. Another approach could be to increase federal financial aid awards to automatically cover the costs of child care that student parents need in order to study or attend class.

What’s next

Time poverty may be a challenge also for students who are not parents. Currently, we are looking at time poverty rates for other groups, such as students who enroll in online courses, women and students of color, to explore the extent to which time poverty is unequally distributed, and whether it may explain inequitable college outcomes for these groups. This may help us to understand whether different groups finish college at different rates because of differences in how much time they have to devote to their studies.

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