Stacey Lewis wanted to get her college degree, but she’d all but given up on going back to school. 

The mother of three couldn’t find child care for her kids — then ages 2, 6 and 9.

“I couldn’t pay for child care during the daytime while I’m at work and pay for child care at nighttime while I’m in school,” she said. “If I needed a babysitter, my dad lived on the other side of town. It just didn’t line up with life.”

Then Lewis’ sister, a student at Martin University, told her about the college’s drop-in child care center. Lewis enrolled in 2017 and, for three years, she brought her kids to school with her. She graduated from Martin with a degree in early childhood education. Now she works part-time at the center that had helped her for all those years.

Having a safe place for her kids to go while she was in class was “a huge relief,” she told Mirror Indy. 

Roughly one in five U.S. college students is a parent, according to federal data. Studies show those students face major barriers to higher education — with child care at the top of the list.

In Indiana, just 13% of student parents at four-year universities graduated in four years in 2021, according to a study of FAFSA recipients by the Commission for Higher Education and obtained by Mirror Indy. That pales in comparison to the 48% of their peers without children. 

Martin University, a small college with an 87% Black student body, is the only college in Indianapolis that has free, onsite child care available to its students. Rebecca Doane, director of the early learning center, estimates 90% of Martin students are parents.

“They feel very secure, and they don’t have to worry about their child while they’re here,” said Doane, who’s also an early childhood education professor at Martin.

Taking the pressure off 

Colorful painted stripes adorn the walls of Martin’s early learning center. Patterned rugs lie underneath kid-sized tables and chairs. Shelves filled with picture books and cubbies with toys line the room. There’s even a smart whiteboard for showing educational games and activities on the wall.

In many respects, the early learning center is just like any other child care center or classroom. What makes it unusual is that the kids are learning and playing just down the hall from their parents’ college classes. Since most students at Martin work full-time during the day, the center is busiest during night classes.

Stacey Lewis (left) colors pictures with Darian Quirin, 6, in the care and learning center at Martin University on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Indianapolis. Lewis, a former Martin University student, says she chose to attend Martin because of its free drop-in child care. Credit: Jenna Watson / Mirror Indy

Martin’s Pre-K Care & Learning Center started in 2015. In its early days, the center cost $25 a session for parents. But now, thanks to a grant, parents can use the child care center for free — a point of great pride for the child care center’s staff.

“It takes the pressure off of them trying to find child care, and then worrying about whether or not they can attend classes,” said Korrie Estes, a coordinator who started running the center in July 2022.

That pressure is very real. According to a survey of student parents across the U.S. from advocacy organization Generation Hope, more than 60% of students with children missed at least one day of class because they didn’t have access to child care. A third of respondents said they believed their campuses weren’t family-friendly.

With its child care center, Martin’s trying to do something different, showing students their families belong there. Even when the child care wasn’t operating, Doane said Martin professors would let parents bring their children to class. 

“Martin as a whole as a school, we’re very involved with our students and our students’ needs,” Doane said. “This is just a carryover.”

Setting student parents up for success

For Melayna Quirin, having an affordable and safe place to bring her 6-year-old daughter Darian while she attends her business classes means one less thing to worry about. 

If Martin didn’t offer free child care, she doesn’t know what she’d do. The Indianapolis woman doesn’t have a lot of family support in the U.S. 

Melayna Quirin talks about her experience with Martin University’s free drop-in child care on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Indianapolis.
Melayna Quirin talks about her experience with Martin University’s free drop-in child care on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Indianapolis. Credit: Jenna Watson / Mirror Indy

“When you have small children, it’s nice to know where your kids are at, who’s actually watching them,” she said. “It’s just peace of mind.”

Quirin said Darian loves coming to school with her — and Quirin loves that her daughter is spending time on a college campus. 

“It’s never too soon to introduce the child to school,” Quirin said. “It’s funny because she doesn’t like going to her school, but she’ll love coming to college.” 

Since the pandemic, lots of Martin’s classes are hybrid, so the center is not as busy as it once was. Some nights, it won’t get any kids at all — but someone will be there just in case. Doane and Estes also plan to expand the early learning center into a preschool with classes in the morning and afternoon. Because of the demand, the night child care will stay the same. 

For students like Quirin, that means the world.

“To have a school that cares about you and how well you actually succeed as a student,” Quirin said, “to me, who wouldn’t want to go?”

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.