Child care vexes grad students

With the University expected soon to announce a new child-care facility, graduate students with children said they continue to struggle financially to balance their studies with parenting.

A year after a survey found that financial limitations are the main obstacle for graduate students raising children, students said they hope the administration will address the cost and scarcity of University-sponsored child care. Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said the University has plans to improve its child-care facilities to accommodate the children of graduate students and faculty members.

Graduate students’ children chill out at the Law School’s child care center. Students trying to raise families while pursuing academia face a heavy burden.
Chris Young
Graduate students’ children chill out at the Law School’s child care center. Students trying to raise families while pursuing academia face a heavy burden.

“We’re in the process of developing new facilities that graduate students could use, and we’re hoping that an announcement will be made about a new child-care center shortly, perhaps after spring break,” Butler said. “The University is very interested in expanding its child-care opportunities, which would include opportunities for graduate school students.”

Less than 5 percent of students in the Graduate School have children, he said.

Last year’s survey by the Working Group on Child Care at Yale, comprised primarily of graduate students, was a reaction to an earlier study commissioned by the Provost’s Office that many students saw as flawed and not comprehensive. The Provost’s Office has since convened a WorkLife Advisory Committee on child care to focus on the University’s ongoing child care initiative as well as issues raised by its survey, which was conducted by the Bright Horizons consulting group.

Brenda Santos GRD ’10, a member of the child-care advisory committee, said the issue of child care is important to graduate students because most are embarking on long-term academic careers that do not allow them to postpone having children.

“There really won’t be an idyllic, stable time that comes after graduate school anymore,” Santos said. “In addition to that, most of us are in our childbearing years. This is the stage when most of us want to start families.”

But Santos said the $19,000 stipend for graduate students in the humanities does not make it possible to spend $12,000 per year for a place in a Yale-affiliated child-care center. Despite the high quality of these centers, she said, there are a limited number of scholarships available and the waiting lists for facilities with sliding-scale payment plans are prohibitively long. While a new University child-care facility is a step in the right direction, she said, funding constraints will still cause problems for students struggling with their small stipends.

Graduate Student Assembly representative Nicole Legnani GRD ’11, who is a mother, said real change cannot take place without additional financial support from the administration. She said Harvard University, for example, is currently piloting a three-year program which offers $1,000 to $5,000 fellowships to support graduate students who have children in Harvard-affiliated child-care centers.

Graduate student and mother Rachel Novick GRD ’08 said if she had made a decision solely based on the child-care facilities available at Yale, she would not have had a baby. Since Yale-affiliated centers have limited space available, she and her husband — who is also a graduate student at the University — chose to get a baby-sitter for their child, which costs them about 40 percent of their combined incomes.

But barring financial difficulties, Novick said, graduate school is actually the best time for people pursuing academic careers to have children.

“Most people recognize that there’s no good time to have a baby,” Novick said. “It’s not like it’s easier when you’re a post-doc or when you have a job. Grad school is actually one of the most flexible times of your career … and really the problem is the cost.”

Cindy Tobery, director of programs and projects for the Women Faculty Forum, said while the University has made major advances in supporting junior and senior faculty members with children, there is much left to be done for non-ladder faculty and graduate students.

Santos said the working group’s survey indicated that female students — many of who are concerned about decreasing fertility with age — worry that the University does not see graduate students as professionals capable of having families. Some women shared in their survey responses that they had abortions in order to stay in school, while others reported they were afraid to tell their advisers that they were pregnant because there are no institutional guidelines indicating how to treat graduate students who are pregnant, Santos said.

While Novick said she has been fortunate not to encounter such problems in her interactions with faculty, she said it is common for professors to “think of their students as kids,” particularly because many students are only about 22 when they begin their graduate work. Yale is starting to establish programs to help make faculty aware of the challenges faced by students with children, Novick said, and this type of effort is vital to keep women in academia.

“If [women] feel like they have to make a choice between school and family, a lot are going to leave school, which is bad,” she said.

In 2005, the Provost’s Office called for the construction of a new child-care facility on or near campus to supplement the five centers currently affiliated with the University. The announcement also indicated that Yale will support the expansion of sliding-scale payment plans and scholarship assistance to facilitate tuition payment.

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