RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
College is hard enough, right? Raising kids and trying to get a degree is a whole other level of hard. And this is life for a lot of people. Twenty percent of all college students are also parents, and they are more likely than others to drop out. The federal government is now studying this for the first time. NPR's Elissa Nadworny got an early look at a new report that says schools should be doing more to help student parents.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: In between Little League practice and making dinner, college student Lesley Del Rio is studying for an exam. She's working towards her associate's degree in Denver, Colo. She says her best study partner is her 8-year-old son.
LESLEY DEL RIO: His name is Leonardo - after the Ninja Turtle, not the artist.
NADWORNY: Being a single mom and trying to get a degree has been a challenge. She says there's times when she had to pick between time with her son and classes. In many of those moments, she says, she picked Leo.
DEL RIO: It hasn't been flawless. It hasn't been easy.
NADWORNY: She also works full-time, and she's become a master at squeezing in schoolwork.
DEL RIO: It's me staying up late, doing that at night. It's on the weekends while he goes to the park. It's during the week after work.
MELISSA EMREY-ARRAS: There are so many student parents going to college these days, which I know is shocking to a lot of folks.
NADWORNY: That's Melissa Emrey-Arras, a researcher at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. More than 4 million college students are raising children. That's according to a new report first obtained by NPR from the federal watchdog.
EMREY-ARRAS: A lot of folks tend to think of college students as single 18-, 19-year-old students without any kids.
NADWORNY: The report found that many of these student parents - about half - are dropping out before they get their degree. And this matters because then you don't have the degree to get a better job. And if you have loans, you're more likely to struggle paying those back. One major barrier for student parents - child care. It can be expensive.
EMREY-ARRAS: Many states, the cost of child care actually exceeds the cost of tuition at an in-state four-year public university. So it's not an insignificant cost.
NADWORNY: The thing that many student parents don't realize - they are eligible to use federal financial aid dollars to cover child care costs. It's called a dependent care allowance. And it's not automatic, so students have to ask their college to provide aid for child care. And they often have to prove through a day care bill or even a birth certificate that they, indeed, need it.
But students don't know they can get this aid because schools aren't advertising it. There are schools with active student parent programs, but when GAO researchers looked at their websites...
EMREY-ARRAS: We found that two-thirds of the school websites did not mention the option to increase federal student aid to pay for child care.
NADWORNY: And that lack of knowledge translates to real money left on the table.
EMREY-ARRAS: Over 2 1/2 million student parents could actually be eligible for additional federal student aid, but it's hard to know to ask for something if you don't know it exists.
NADWORNY: This comes at a time when child care on campus is declining. So last year, Congress authorized additional funding for child care on campus. In a statement, the Washington Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat and ranking member of the Senate's education committee, said the GAO report highlights an important need - quote, "the lack of affordable high-quality child care shouldn't hold anyone back from achieving their dreams."
For Lesley Del Rio in Denver, she's working towards her dream of getting a degree with Leo in tow. They often do their homework together.
DEL RIO: Sometimes when he's struggling with a problem, you know, I, like, will rub his back and, you know, make sure that he's OK. And he does that to me. And so, you know, he mimics me as, you know, as that support.
NADWORNY: She says he holds her accountable, and he tells her he's proud of her.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "INNER SENSE")