Children play at Campus Kids, the child care offering available for children of students at Lakeland Community College. Photo: Cristen Vanek/Lakeland Community College

Tiffany Chandler has a full plate: finishing up her associate’s degree in welding at Lakeland Community College, working at Walmart, being a mom.

“I feel like I don’t have enough time in the day to even finish my schoolwork, take care of my kids, go to work and be my own person,” Chandler, 26, said.

This semester, in fact, she had to drop a class in her welding program. There were just too many other moving parts.

Student parents like Chandler have higher grade point averages than their peers who don’t have kids, but more than half of those parents reportedly drop out within six years.

Chandler’s determined, though. It helps to envision her graduation ceremony. She wants her son Hunter to walk across the stage with her. After all, he spends his days at Lakeland, too.

The 4-year-old goes to Campus Kids, the child care offering available for children of currently enrolled students at Lakeland, as well as a preschool on campus. The staff was supportive. They worked with her class schedule and accommodated the times she needed to drop Hunter off so she could study. Everything changed, Chandler said, when Hunter began going there.

“It makes me so proud that we did this together,” she said. “We’re growing together.”

Like other community colleges, Lakeland was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Full-time enrollment fell about 11% in the fall of 2021. Ohio’s colleges were feeling the crunch of changing demographics and a declining number of high school graduates prior to the pandemic, too.

The state is now trying to woo older students who’ve completed some college but don’t yet have a degree to return and graduate. For those who are parents, though, finding reliable child care is a necessity for getting that done.

Nearly 40% of Ohioians are estimated to live in a child care desert without enough options. And even though one in five college students nationwide is a parent, child care options at universities are scarce. Northeast Ohio has nearly 30 nonprofit colleges and universities. Only three currently have on-campus child care centers.

The number of college child care options was already dropping before COVID-19, and the pandemic shined a light on the fragility of the child care industry as a whole. Several college child care facilities, including at places like the University of Vermont and Michigan’s Washtenaw Community College, have closed since 2020.

Lakeland is no exception to the pandemic’s effects. The center now has lower student-to-teacher class ratios due to protocols and now only provides care during a parent’s official class time.

But the convenience hasn’t changed. The center is located in the middle of the Kirtland campus. Plus, with accreditation and licensure by the state, it’s a safe option.

And, at least at Lakeland, it’s far more economical, which is important, as about a third of the college’s students are eligible for Pell Grants. The center charges just $2.50 per hour and a $7 registration fee per semester. The average price for a toddler classroom in Ohio is estimated to be $975 a month. Campus Kids accepts children between the ages of 3 and when they enroll in kindergarten.

Another less-tangible benefit, of course, is support. The center is intertwined with faculty members and other departments. Officials can refer students to resources like child care or mental health counseling or the on-campus food pantry.

The center’s director, Cristen Vanek, wears a lot of hats. One is doing the outreach, trying to make sure students know about Campus Kids. She attended all of the college’s in-person new-student orientation meetings pre-pandemic and approached every single person. She didn’t want to leave anyone out, she said. You never know who is a parent.

To break the ice, she’d give away small random trinkets from a collection she’s built up over the years — Slinkys, pencils, erasers, bobbleheads. They’re not branded. Not enough budget money for that. Just small items offered in an attempt to have students remember Vanek, remember Campus Kids, remember the services they provide.

“When they’re coming in as new students, it’s intimidating,” she said. “So I was always just like this happy, casual person with goofy toys that I’d give to whoever, if they had a child or not.”

That was pre-pandemic, though. Orientations are online now. Vanek has set up a table at some in-person welcome days the college offers during the beginning of the semester. She said those don’t seem to be as well-attended.

Campus Kids officially launched at Lakeland in 2011. Before that, the college provided child care options through an offering called Childminders. There’s no documentation that shows when Childminders opened, according to college officials.

One teacher remembered when student parents used to line up at 6 a.m. when registration started to make sure their kid could secure a spot. There used to be child care available on the weekends, too, though that’s no longer the case.

Campus Kids’ enrollment has declined over time, though now children are staying for longer hours than they did in the past. There are 11 kids attending this semester. Officials estimate they’ve served a minimum of 30 families over the last seven years.

The low cost per hour is subsidized by the college. It helps, too, to have the college’s Teaching Learning Center, referred to as TLC, housed in the same building. It’s billed as an “accredited day school for the preschool aged child.”

TLC is open to community members, not just students of the college like Campus Kids. It receives some college support but is more self-sustaining, thanks to “very competitive” rates, according to Barb Friedt, the college’s dean of applied studies.

Having TLC helps to offset some of Campus Kids’ costs. The infrastructure is already there. The programs can share resources and staff. Both entities serve as a place where those studying early childhood education at Lakeland can come to learn and complete field-hour requirements, too. Those attending Campus Kids for child care get welcomed into a preschool classroom when they’re there.

Friedt said Campus Kids will never be a moneymaker. That’s not the intent. She can’t remember a time where the offering ever came close to folding, though. The administration continues to support it each year.

“For some of our students, it is the make-or-break,” she said. “If we didn’t have Campus Kids, they simply wouldn’t be able to attend college.”

For others, it’s an added bonus. There’s a third group, too, perhaps a cross-section of the first two as well as a category all its own.

“Children are hearing and seeing and learning (as) they’re coming to a college campus with their parent,” Friedt said. “They are coming to school. They are seeing the importance of education. They are seeing how hard their parents work. They are interacting with their peers, and they’re doing it in an amazing environment.”

And the long-term impact of that may be priceless.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.