The past few weeks have brought signs of hope for the long campaign to bring affordable child care to the University of Chicago. First, there was the patch of construction on 56th and Drexel that mushroomed overnight into a day care facility. Soon followed a letter from the deputy provost that recognized “the challenges of raising a family while pursuing graduate and doctoral studies” and named “affordable on-campus child care” a priority. The letter contained a link to a survey that aimed to gauge our interest in a “graduate student-focused child care facility on campus.” Did we dare to hope? We duly filled it out, along with every other graduate student we knew, and now we eagerly anticipate the results.
There’s just one problem: According to the survey, the projected fees for the new day care facility are anything but “affordable” for most graduate students. A week’s full-time enrollment will run upwards of $200 per child per week, or $135 per week for part-time care—an amount approaching what many of us already pay for rent.
Truly affordable child care means childcare on a sliding scale. Faculty, postdocs and graduate students share a common need for child care, but they differ enormously in their ability to pay for it. A postdoc’s salary is two to three times what the average graduate student earns at this university. Even among graduate students, our financial situations vary widely: an incoming Ph.D. student in the humanities can expect to earn about $24,000 per year for the first five years of her graduate school career. Afterward, she may earn her living by teaching, her earnings capped at $12,000-14,000 per year. Some graduate students have well-paying research fellowships, high-earning spouses, or live-in grandparents to help care for their kids, while others are not so lucky. To accommodate this diversity of incomes, schedules, and circumstances, a campus-based child care facility needs to allow parents flexible and sliding-scale access to its services—the number of hours they need, at a rate they can truly afford.
This is the need-based logic through which the University already offers financial aid to its students, and it’s also the policy in place for day care facilities at many of the University’s peer institutions. Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, and Notre Dame are just a few of the universities that view genuinely affordable (that is, subsidized) child care as part of their educational missions. Many of the universities that provide such facilities have considerably smaller endowments than the University of Chicago. Several of these institutions also provide emergency child care, drop-in centers for children at libraries and labs, health care subsidies for dependents, and student-parent task forces that consult regularly with administrators to help them improve services.
The University of Chicago is unusual among its peer institutions in its lack of provisions for graduate student parents, and for parents in general. The administration’s most recent measures—things like the Family Resource Center and its lists of nannies and market-rate day care providers in Hyde Park, as well as its efforts to encourage cooperative child care arrangements among student parents—are welcome but inadequate gestures toward addressing the gap.
As a university whose endowment places it among the wealthiest universities in the United States, and whose reputation makes it a leader among private institutions, the University of Chicago can do better. Rather than create another child care facility in Hyde Park priced beyond the reach of those who need it most, we urge the University to make its new facility genuinely affordable by offering its services to students, faculty, and other members of the university community on a flexible schedule and with a sliding scale.
We recognize that this proposal represents a significant expense for the University. We also believe that it’s worth it. The cost of providing truly affordable child care to those who need it, including student parents, is considerable, but it’s a bargain compared to the cost of going without: a cost that makes itself felt in the graduate students we know who drop out of their programs each year, who take “breaks” from which they never return, or whose progress toward their degrees is dramatically slowed by the lack of access to child care. This cost is disproportionately borne by female students, who are more likely to be primary caregivers, and whose careers are more likely to be jeopardized by becoming parents. The consequences of their attrition are felt throughout the academic community: in the lost years of training they are unable to use, in the articles and books they don’t write, and in the students they never get a chance to teach.
The “choice” these women face—to become either a scholar or a mother—is not a free choice but a forced one. The University has the power to end this false dichotomy and increase the proportion of female scholars in its midst, along with the share of students from non-wealthy backgrounds, by providing the resources they need to succeed as scholars.
In his statement on diversity at the University of Chicago, President Zimmer says, “We have an obligation to see that the greatest variety of perspectives is brought to bear on the issues before us as scholars and citizens.” One way the University can live up to President Zimmer’s words is to make on-campus child care a priority, and to make it truly affordable. A sliding-scale day care facility will help the University compete with its peer institutions in attracting the best and brightest to join its community and produce their best work here. It will reduce rates of attrition and time to degree for graduate student parents as a whole. And it will demonstrate the University’s commitment to a diverse scholarly community by committing its resources to ensure that people with children can still thrive as scholars.
We hope the provost and the president will choose to put the University’s resources where their stated commitments already lie. Affordable child care is a big investment for the University, but the returns are incalculable.
Madeleine Elfenbein and Claire Roosien are Ph.D. students in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and members of the Student Parents Organization.