Spotlight Exclusives

Free College Is Good, but Free Day Care Is Better

Maureen Conway and Mark Popovich, Aspen Institute Maureen Conway and Mark Popovich, Aspen Institute, posted on

“Free College” plans garner headlines, but for many parents the more immediate need is free day care. Many states have enacted plans and some in Congress have proposed a $94 billion program to enable free community college across the country. In contrast, House appropriators only proposed an additional $4 billion for early childhood programs this year. After focusing for years on postsecondary education and training strategies designed to help low-income workers get better jobs, we certainly believe in broadening access to education for low-income students and working families. But in our decades of work, we know that paying tuition is only part of the problem. To build systems that help working families pay the bills, help students learn and be prepared for tomorrow’s jobs, and help working people bring their best self to work, day care is a better investment. Here are seven reasons why:

Child care is essential for working parents. All children need care, but it is a privileged family where one parent can choose to be a stay-at-home caregiver. Wage stagnation over the past several decades means that the average household today needs two incomes to get by. Most mothers, even mothers of very young children, work. And the necessity of paid work means that parents need care for their children. In addition, the need for care starts with children at very young ages, since most working people do not have access to paid family leave. But despite this universal need for childcare, we have precious little investment in systems to provide high-quality, affordable care.

Childcare costs more than college, a financial burden that discourages some from ever having children. In most states, the typical cost of child care exceeds the cost of tuition at a four-year public university. In addition, parents of young children tend to be younger and earlier in their careers and earning less than parents of college-age children. And while families have 18 years to plan and save for college expenses, they have no time to save or plan for day care costs. This challenge is contributing to today’s historically low fertility rates. Many potential parents cite the high cost of child care as influencing their decision not to have children or to have fewer than their ideal. Free day care would reduce a great burden and financial stress on young families.

Child care services in British Columbia (used under Creative Commons license)

Free day care reaches the children and families most in need. Free day care would help all families, including poor families, which are disproportionately families of color. Medicaid pays for over 42% of childbirths in the US. The low-income parents of these infants often face an incredible bind—they do not earn enough to afford child care, but they cannot afford to not work. If they do not work, they risk losing eligibility for supports like food stamps and other forms of social assistance that low-wage workers frequently rely on to make ends meet. And while there are programs that provide early child care services to poor children, these programs have the resources to serve only a fraction of eligible children. Free day care is essential to help the lowest income parents both work and care for their children.

High-quality child care would help boost educational success. Educational disadvantage begins before kindergarten. Many students – particularly from poor families or families of color – enter kindergarten at a disadvantage. These families struggle with low earnings, irregular schedules, and limited time and resources to support early learning. Because education disparities start before Kindergarten, a free system of high-quality child care would ensure that all children have a better start.

Most work doesn’t require a college education—and that won’t change anytime soon. While people with college degrees generally earn more than people without college degrees, it does not follow that equipping more people with college degrees will ensure more college jobs with higher earnings. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2018 the typical entry-level education requirement for 63% of jobs was a high school degree or less and they expect little change in that statistic. Roughly one-third of college graduates are in jobs that do not require a college degree. While certainly higher education has value beyond job preparation, these data raise questions about whether the attainment of a college degree is the answer to the economic challenges facing working people. The Millennial experience is a cautionary tale. Despite higher levels of education, they have lower earnings and less wealth than previous generations did at their age. As this generation becomes parents, we can help them now by eliminating a devastating financial burden.

Free day care is more progressive than free college. Free day care benefits most those with the highest needs. “Free college” may do the reverse. High-income students gain more from free college plans simply because they are more likely to go to college than low-income students. Further, low-income students who do go to college are more likely to attend less expensive, open-access institutions, and the value of the tuition benefit is less. In addition, in many state plans “free college” only applies to tuition, leaving students on their own to cover living expenses. If states divert means-tested aid that would have helped poor students pay for living expenses in order to cover the costs of the universal “free college” plan, we’ll actually have restricted access to education to those most in need.

Millions of college students are parents too. Free child care doesn’t mean choosing to help one group over another. Of the 19.5 million undergraduate students in the US, 4.3 million (22%) are parents according to the Government Accountability Office. Making child care free would support the success of these parent-students and their children at the same time.

As parents of college-age children, we understand the appeal of free college. But we also remember those earlier years when we earned less and scrambled to find care arrangements we could afford and could feel comfortable with. While there may be room for improvement, state and federal investments have built a higher education system that meets a variety of learning needs and serves a diverse array of students. Far less is invested in meeting the needs of young children and families for care and early learning. Now is the time to seriously consider a bold proposal to transform the lives of millions of parents, boost our economy, and set up a new generation for success.

Maureen Conway is vice president for policy programs and executive director of the Economic Opportunities Program and Mark Popovich is director of the Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative at the Aspen Institute.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives