Graduate students seek University child care

By Meredith Meyer

Finding child care proved a Herculean feat for Matteo Colombi, Ph.D. student in the political science department, and father of 9-month-old Daniela. The new father was left to his own devices after exhausting the list of child care centers suggested by the Day Care Action Council.

He said the University’s referral system was not effective. “The University does all this information gathering and dissemination, but it didn’t help us one iota,” he said. “We had to advertise our baby like a piece of pork.”

Besides encountering interminable waiting lists at most child care centers, the new father said he was horrified by the quality of some of the centers. “Two places in Hyde Park were like baby farms—there were too many kids that they had just stuck in a place with a television.”

Colombi and his wife, who works full-time at the United Way downtown, resorted to posting advertisements for nanny-sharing on trees in parks and places where parents congregate.

The current list of day cares posted on the University’s Office of Community Affairs consists of 17 day cares, none of which offer care for children two years or younger. A worker at one of these advertised centers, the Love Learning Center Day Care, on 61st street said that she did not know if there were even any childcare centers in the area for infants, “I have no idea—you’d have to look in the yellow pages.”

In the ever-tightening market of higher education, benefits packages have become a powerful leveraging tool for universities looking to attract and retain the best faculty and graduate students. Consequently, universities nationwide are beefing up their childcare services in an effort to stay competitive to prospective employees and students.

Schools are reacting to a growing national demand. As more women work and pursue graduate level studies, the need for childcare continues to rise. The 2000 House Ways and Means Green Book documents the dramatic increase of mothers in the labor force. It reported that since 1947, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of mothers with preschool age children who work outside the home. Following World War II, only about 12 percent of mothers with children under the age of six were in the labor force. This figure rose to over 64 percent in 1999.

In response to this growing national need, schools such as West Virginia University, the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, and Michigan State University have begun to offer voucher programs to their staff, faculty and students. Michigan Tech allocated $50,000 to open the Michigan Tech childcare Center in 1999 in response to what the administration called “an undeniable need among students and faculty.” Michigan Tech has since expanded these facilities.

In a similar spirit, the University of Michigan has five state licensed and nationally accredited on-campus child care centers. Michigan instituted a childcare tuition grant program in September of 2000 for University faculty, staff and students who have children enrolled at their campus centers.

Parents at the University of Chicago say the school’s childcare resources have not kept pace with peer institutions. Chris Keeley, associate vice-president of Human Resources Management in the University, said that the University completed a comprehensive review of its benefits a year ago, but “in that review, childcare did not rise to the top of the list.”

Keeley said that “the University’s overall benefits package is not only competitive, but the degree of subsidy and support for families in the overall package is generous.” Keeley points to the 50% tuition subsidy for the Laboratory Schools from nursery to high school that the University provides for employees as evidence.

Sarah Diwan, owner of Baby Ph.D, a childcare center in Hyde Park, says that while the lab school is a definite perk for faculty with older children, it does not consider the needs of parents with younger children. “Parents need the most help when their children are zero to three years old.” Diwan’s center accepts kids from zero to four years old and has an after school program for five to seven year olds.

Diwan earned her Ph.D. in Maternal and Child Health from the University in 2001, and was a part-time lecturer at the School of Social Administration when she had her daughter, Sarita in July of 2001. Diwan began her daycare search by going to the Benefits office, which provided her a book of local childcare centers recommended by the Day Care Action Council (DCAC), a private, non-profit agency. “I was really dissatisfied with the quality of most of the places and the ones I liked were full,” she said. “I couldn’t afford a nanny, so I put a note in the book in the Benefits office book offering to nanny-share with another family.” Diwan received such an overwhelming response to her note that she decided to start Baby Ph.D. in Hyde Park with her nanny that same summer.

Diwan said that benefit packages, which include childcare options, have become significant factors in prospective faculty members’ decisions to come to the University or go elsewhere. “There was an administrator who worked for the University who received a job offer at another school,” she added. “The school offered a reserved spot in the school’s child care center and he told me that this was what ultimately made him decide to leave the U of C.”

Almost all of the parents of the children at Baby Ph.D. are affiliated with the University. Before Diwan opened a second center in Hyde Park, their waiting list numbered 50 families, 45 of whom were University affiliated. Now their waiting list has 28 names on it, 21 of which are of University affiliated parents.

Diwan said that the size of her waiting lists is indicative of the need of more childcare in Hyde Park. “Two faculty members from France, who were coming to the University called a year before they arrived here to get on the waiting list.”

The University does not necessarily need to provide more subsidies, according to Diwan. Instead, it must secure space for childcare. “The University could provide a subsidy, but just getting the space is most important,” she noted. “This neighborhood can easily support a high quality childcare center. People are willing to pay $285/week for day care.”

Colombi also said he is not asking for a subsidy. “We made the baby, we’re responsible, we’ll pay for daycare—but $350 per week for a nanny was impossible.” Colombi and Diwan want the University to provide a space for a campus childcare center, either to be outsourced or run by the University itself. “In Hyde Park, most child care is in people’s houses,” Colombi said. “There should be a space dedicated to childcare services. There is a demand. There is an undersupply.” He added that he would pay the University a childcare fee in the same way students already pay a medical and activities fee for these respective services.

Recalling the frustration involved in his search for childcare, Colombi said, “It got so bad at one point […] because no one was showing up, no one was calling.” He is struck by the irony of what he considers the University’s laissez-faire attitude toward childcare. “Some policies require a different attitude toward your population. We study these great policy issues in the abstract and yet its seems to me the University has washed its hands of its own [population].”