Growth Spurts and Growing Pains
Ten years on, the Graduate School's Parental Relief Policy is imperfect but invaluable
As Samantha Streicher GRD ’17 walked across the stage to accept her diploma this spring, she looked out into the audience and saw her young daughter and son cheering her on.
“My daughter screamed, ‘Yay, Mommy!’ as I walked up on the stage,” said Streicher, a public health student who gave birth to both of her children while working on a dissertation about the genetics of pancreatic cancer in Ashkenazi Jews.
At another university, she admits, this might not have been possible.
Streicher is part of the five percent of students, or 150 individuals, in Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences taking advantage of the school’s parental relief policy at any given time. The policy, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this past winter, offers graduate students having or adopting children funding, some respite from from their academic responsibilities and additional time to complete their degrees.
The policy was the first of its kind in the Ivy League, and has so far cost the graduate school nearly $4 million, according to Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley.
“It was really nice to have [my kids] there, because they were part of the experience,” Streicher said of her graduation ceremony. “They definitely had less mommy time because I was working on my dissertation.”
The relief policy allows students to spend their first semester of parenthood with their children. Although these new student parents are not required to, many begin working from home before the end of the relief period. In interviews, all five student parents reported being satisfied with the policy and their overall experience with it.
In fact, the graduate students interviewed suggested only one potential improvement to the policy. Student parents are expected to finish all of their work and teaching requirements in order to graduate, and most rely on outside babysitters and daycare to make the time to do so. The problem is that childcare, particularly in the New Haven area, is rarely affordable or even accessible.
Parental relief could be improved, students said, by offering childcare subsidies in addition to the existing relief benefits, which, unlike parenthood, end a semester after the birth or adoption of a child.
As members of the graduate school celebrate and reflect on the policy a decade after its inception, students and administrators are looking ahead to the next decade of parental relief and how it can be improved.
DEGREES OF RELIEF
Graduate students have long been vocal about the professional and personal costs of having children while at Yale. When former Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Jon Butler assumed his role in 2004, he said, he set out to address student concerns about having insurance coverage for their children and enough time to complete their Ph.D.s.
Butler spearheaded conversations with the University Provost’s office and Yale Health that lasted almost two years and resulted in significant health insurance subsidies for some graduate students’ children in 2006. The plan grew into an official policy the following academic year.
“Frankly, helping develop and argue within the University for the creation of these programs was the single most exciting achievement of my time as dean because the benefits accrued so directly to terrific Ph.D. students who will be leading their fields for decades,” Butler told the News in December. “It was a pure privilege to help them realize their goals.”
Officially, the policy allows students to take one semester of “non-cumulative registration” — essentially a semester off — with funding beyond the stipend that all graduate students receive upon admission, following the birth or adoption of a child.
Robert Harper-Mangels, an assistant dean of the graduate school, researched and internally published a report in the spring of 2016 examining the effectiveness of the policy and said its results were both unsurprising and reassuring.
“The basic conclusion that we draw internally is that students who get parental relief are not at a disadvantage,” he said, referring to measures like median time to completion of degree.
According to the report, from 2007 through the fall of 2015, a total of 6075 students were registered in the graduate school. During this period, 294 students — 4.8 percent of the graduate student body — received parental relief.
Of that number, 240 students took parental leave once, and 54 did so twice, meaning they used the policy for multiple children. (One student even used the policy for three children.) Yale spends approximately $380,000 each year to fund parental relief.
These student parents were spread out across all academic divisions, but humanities students were more than twice as likely, statistically, to seek parental relief over students in the natural and social sciences. However, Harper-Mangels explained that this usage rate is likely a consequence of there being roughly twice as many students in the natural sciences as in the humanities.
According to the report, students in the natural sciences with children took approximately one extra term and one extra summer to graduate, compared to students without children. Those in the social sciences took a full year longer. In the humanities, the total time to degree for student parents was the same as for other students — meaning that humanities students who took parental leave actually completed their degrees in less time than their peers did.
Both men and women applied for relief, though over half of those making use of the policy — 57 percent, according to the report — were female. Bryan Yoon GRD ’18, a new father and former member of the Graduate Student Assembly, called paternal leave “probably the best thing about the policy.”
“I can go on forever about why this is one of the most absolutely necessary improvements we need to make as a nation to break the glass ceiling for women,” he said, adding that many people incorrectly assume fathers play only a supporting role in caring for their children, whereas many — like himself — are the primary caregivers for their newborns.
The report also found that the majority of students taking parental relief did so during the middle three to five years of their graduate school experience, though some also did so in their first and last two years.
Beth Wellman GRD ’18, who used the parental relief policy twice, said there are upsides to having children during graduate school as opposed to during a tenure-track career. In academia, she said, women used to be encouraged to wait until they had tenure even to think about having kids.
“There are a lot of clocks involved, but it’s always and never the right time to have a family,” she said.
Parental relief may pause the academic clock, but Harper-Mangels’ report found that the effect of the policy on students’ time to degree and career outcomes was essentially negligible.
The median time to degree for all students who graduated after taking parental relief was 6.7 years, just one semester longer than the median time for students who did not. Aside from the semester a new parent takes off, time to degree is roughly the same for students with and without children.
These patterns didn’t appear to change once diplomas were awarded — exit surveys indicate that there is virtually no difference in employment patterns of student parents and other graduates.
“We know that students are graduating at the same or higher rate than students who don’t have parental relief, so it does not appear that having a child or being put on parental relief is hurting your chances of graduating and getting a degree,” he said.
The numbers work in the policy’s favor. But the most convincing proof comes from the students themselves.
“I will say that I would have thought a lot harder about having a child while in graduate school had it not been for the generous parental leave policy,” said Josefa Martinez GRD ’16.
BUSY, BUT SATISFIED
On weekdays, Beth Wellman does what she calls the “triple shift”: She rises at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. to get a few hours of work done before her two children wake up, takes care of them until the babysitter comes and then works during the day. After dinner and the kids’ bedtime routines, she’ll hit the books again — if she’s awake enough.
Wellman, a political science Ph.D. candidate, even took her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Ted, with her when she moved to South Africa to do fieldwork for six months. Her husband, a surgeon, couldn’t take time off work to care for Ted, so the toddler went with her as she conducted interviews and archival fieldwork for her dissertation on diaspora voting rights and transnational electoral participation.
Wellman said parental relief immediately after her children were born provided invaluable flexibility.
“You have to be really disciplined to get your work done,” she said. “But it also gives you flexibility to spend quality time with your kids.”
Even though graduate students take a semester off after having or adopting children and are technically not required to do academic work, most gradually ease into routines that combine childcare and research.
“I think with academics, you’re kind of always working, and so it’s not a normal maternity policy with 12 weeks off and then you’re back on,” Wellman said. “The transition enabled me to ease back into work, doing a couple hours a day or week and gradually ramping up to working full time.”
Because most of the parents interviewed had children after finishing their coursework and teaching requirements, their academic commitments did not require them to be on campus. Wellman, for example, splits her time between New Haven and New York City.
For Streicher, a day of work and parenting means dropping her daughter off at school for a childcare program and then working on her dissertation at a nearby library. After enjoying dinner with her family, she’ll usually get back on her computer for a few hours.
Her second child was a fussy sleeper, so she would put him in a Babybjorn carrier and stand up to work on her laptop.
“I was very pleased with [the policy],” Streicher said. “Obviously it can always be better — it’s hard being a parent and trying to finish your dissertation. I think it’s hard being a parent and working. It’s hard being a parent.”
BACK TO SCHOOL FOR PARENTS … AND KIDS?
As the parental relief period winds down and full-time workdays approach, students are tasked with arranging childcare, which, more often than not, is a challenge. Daycare options, especially in the New Haven area, are limited.
Wendy Xiao GRD ’17 MED ’18, the chair of the Graduate Student Assembly, said she has heard of a New Haven couple who, in order to afford a spot at a daycare in neighboring Hamden, had to sell their car and had no choice but to bike their children there every day.
“One of the issues is it’s not affordable,” Xiao said. “The other issue is that there are not a lot of spots.”
Xiao explained that childcare is almost universally expensive because of the mandated ratios of children to staff. The New Haven area daycares rarely have openings, and the ones that do are usually far away. She added that even though the ratio of three children to one guardian drives up the cost of childcare, it is necessary in order to ensure infants receive adequate attention.
Yoon said he and his wife are sending their daughter, Maddie, to a daycare in Hamden starting this fall because the best daycares in New Haven are Yale-affiliated centers with restrictive admission policies that often make them inaccessible.
“This will save us $600 per month in childcare, but this means I have to [spend] 45 minutes per day driving to Hamden, back and forth,” he said.
Yale does offer up to 40 hours of emergency babysitting at a subsidized rate, according to Xiao. But the Graduate Student Assembly is still working to convince the administration to go further to subsidize student parents’ childcare, she said.
The Graduate Student Assembly published a report on childcare in August 2016, concluding from research and student feedback that childcare options in New Haven are both limited in number and beyond the budget of a graduate student stipend.
The report recommended the establishment of need-based subsidized spots reserved for graduate students in Yale-affiliated child care centers or, alternately, the expansion of current facilities alongside a subsidy program for graduate students. Because even if cost were not an issue, accessibility still would be.
At the time of the report’s publication, there were seven Yale-affiliated childcare centers and approximately 150 children under four years of age with at least one parent in the graduate school.
The average cost of childcare across Yale-affiliated centers is $1709 per month for a child under the age of three, whereas the average cost for a local non-Yale center for a child in that same age range is $1469 per month.
Based on stipend data for 2015, when the minimum amount awarded was $29,000, childcare at this price would translate to 34 percent of the income of a student couple and 71 percent of a single parent’s income.
Yoon said he and his wife spend about $2500 each month just on childcare, which is essentially equal to his entire stipend.
“Getting married and having a child was a choice we made, but it would be a financial disaster if my wife didn’t have her job,” he said.
According to a 2015 Graduate Student Assembly report on the subject, the cost of implementing a childcare subsidy would be about $213,840 per year. To stress the feasibility of such a subsidy, the report compares its cost to the Swing Space renovation’s $25 million price tag, and the $70,000 annual expense for a Ph.D. student.
Xiao said the childcare report was submitted to University Provost Benjamin Polak’s office during the last academic year, per protocol, but has not yet elicited a response. Polak did not respond to request for comment for this story.
“It is no secret that the Graduate Student Assembly identified subsidies for childcare as a high priority for the students with families, and this is because paying for high quality childcare is expensive, and graduate students have particular difficulty affording that on the stipend that we pay them,” said Cooley, the graduate school dean, when asked about ongoing efforts to improve student parents’ experiences.
She added that the report from the Graduate Student Assembly is under careful study, but said she could not comment further.
This is not the first time that administrators have explored the possibility of childcare subsidies. In 2005, a campus review undertaken by then-Provost Andrew Hamilton and then-vice president of finance and administration John Pepper studied the topic and published a series of recommendations on how to improve childcare for Yale students.
Recommendations included building a new on-campus childcare center, piloting a program to expand the capacity and quality of existing centers, providing space and funding for the core staffing of a childcare cooperative and creating a new position whose responsibilities included oversight of available childcare services.
Few, if any, of these projects have been taken on since then, and the costs of daycare centers and babysitting have steadily increased.
Most of the initiatives did not come to fruition because of University budget cuts following the 2008 recession, but students noted that other previously postponed projects, such as the construction of Yale’s two new residential colleges, have since been completed.
“Most other projects that were going on at the time have been resumed, and that one has not,” Xiao said.
Cooley and Xiao both noted that Yale is miles ahead of fellow Ivy League and other peer institutions when it comes to providing health insurance for doctoral students and their families. The University provides full coverage at Yale Health to its students and offers to cover half of students’ spouses’ insurance. If a graduate student has a child, the University will cover the cost for all family members at Yale Health.
Yale is the only one of its peer institutions to offer this health coverage. A Graduate Student Assembly comparison of Yale to universities including Princeton, Harvard and Stanford found that the graduate school offers one of the most liberal leave-time policies for new parents and the second-most hours of subsidized back-up care, which many of the institutions do not have at all.
When it comes to financial support for childcare, the 2016 report also measured Yale against a similar grouping of peer institutions, many of which provide subsidies.
For example, Columbia offers a $1,000 subsidy for each child under the age of five and not yet attending kindergarten, while the University of Pennsylvania’s Family Grant Program provides annual grants up to $4,000 to eligible PhD students.
The University of Michigan, which the report noted as one of the best subsidy programs for student parents, offers up to $2,530 a term for one child, $3,700 a term for two children and $4,880 for three or more children.
And at Duke, need-based subsidies are allocated to full-time Ph.D. students with children enrolled in a three-, four- or five-star level childcare facility certified by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Of course, Yoon pointed out, not all graduate students with children are struggling financially. He said graduate students come from diverse backgrounds — he knows some who can barely make ends meet, and others who live in luxury apartments. The former, though, are solidly in the majority.
Some graduate students rely on family members to care for their children while they finish school, like Josefa Martinez. Her mother helped out with the baby in the first month, and when her parental leave ended she had enrolled her daughter in a daycare that had open spots and was close to home.
Still, many of the student parents who have children towards the end of their graduate careers and don’t live in New Haven know that they will look elsewhere for daycare, and that it will be expensive regardless.
Wellman is one of them. She said that for a resident of New York City, childcare costs more than her stipend, and that she is fortunate to have her husband to help support the family.
“It’s one thing to be 24 and single and live in [the Hall of Graduate Studies], and it’s just a very different thing to be 36 and have two kids,” Wellman said. “And it’s the same stipend.”
Yale’s parental relief policy may be experiencing some growing pains, but overall has made great strides in its first ten years.
Some students have pointed out that the policy could be improved in other, smaller ways. For example, Martinez, a public health student who studies breastfeeding, said a perfect policy would be longer than fourth months — ideally up to six, in alignment with World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations — to allow mothers the option to breastfeed longer, but she understands that this option is not feasible, or even desirable, for the majority of parents since it does not coincide with the four-month academic semester.
Others have pointed out that the policy does not apply equally to graduate parents who are both students at Yale, since only one parent is allowed the leave. The alternative would require the parents to split the period between them.
“The logic behind the policy right now is that we have set up the parental relief to be on a per child basis … rather than on a per graduate student basis,” explained Cooley, who added that this is theoretically changeable but does not seem to be the highest priority for improvement.
Strengthening support for doctoral students with children would mean not only a higher quality experience for graduate student parents but also a more attractive draw for prospective students, said Cooley, who has heard that Yale’s family-friendly programs spark interest during recruiting season.
Streicher said the parental relief policy was not one of the main factors that drew her to Yale but said, when the time came, it was great to have in place.
“I remember the coordinator of the program told us about parental leave and said, ‘If you’re going to have kids, you should have them all during this program!’” she said.
Yoon said resources for parents are increasingly important as graduate students enter schools at an older age — many, like Wellman, do not matriculate directly from college — and Ph.D. programs take longer. For example, he said, the average age of incoming Ph.D. students at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies is 30.
“Some [people] may think that graduate students are young 20-something kids who are here for five years, thus no need to consider parental relief or childcare support an important part of student benefit packages,” Yoon said.
As he watches his daughter grow up, he is also keeping a close eye on the work of the Graduate Student Assembly, as it pushes to improve the policy that has helped him and so many other student parents.
Since student parents are a minority of the graduate school population, he said, the struggles of childcare go largely unnoticed.
“But all the non-parents will one day become parents or get old enough to understand that having access to affordable childcare is a national issue with ties to sexism, gender equality and work-life balance,” Yoon said. “So, be part of improving the condition here at Yale while you have some free time, so that we can raise the bar for other universities and the nation at large.”