Despite state subsidies, rising child care costs an enduring burden

All post-secondary students in Minnesota are able to access funds through the grant program, but students still struggle with the cost of child care as it increases.

Annabelle Stalboerger reads to her two children, 18-month-old E.J., and 5-year-old Clara on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016 at their home in Sartell, Minnesota. Stalboerger's fiancé University of Minnesota third-year law student Edward

Chelsea Gortmaker

Annabelle Stalboerger reads to her two children, 18-month-old E.J., and 5-year-old Clara on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016 at their home in Sartell, Minnesota. Stalboerger’s fiancé University of Minnesota third-year law student Edward “Teddy” Fleming had testified in March to help a bill pass to modify child care grant eligibility to include graduate students. They spend about $18,000 per year on child care expenses.

Rilyn Eischens and Raj Chaduvula

With child care costs doubling in the last 25 years, student-parents are seeking additional resources to help pay their bills.

In the spring, after professional and graduate student-parents lobbied the Minnesota legislature, a law was passed opening child care grant funds to all postsecondary students in need. The amount, $2,800 per year, is provided by Minnesota’s Postsecondary Child Care Grant.

But average child care costs in Minnesota amount to a hefty $12,500 each calendar year.

And to make matters more complicated, the University of Minnesota’s child care service for faculty, staff and students — offered through the Child Development Center — has been plagued by a waitlist for decades.

Minnesota’s grant subsidizes child care costs for those parents attending a college or university in the state, said Ginny Dodds, manager of the State Grant program in the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Before this year, the funds were exclusively for low-income undergraduate students.

Members of the Council of Graduate Students and the Professional Student Government researched the program and found there were usually large sums of money left unused.

Dodds said that although the government eased eligibility requirements several times, the program ran a surplus of about $1 million in most fiscal years.

“There was enough money in the state’s budget to be involving graduate and professional students, so it didn’t make sense to exclude those groups,” said PSG President Max Hall, adding that it’s especially important when those students are more likely to have families and higher debt loads.

The program will continue to receive about $6.4 million in state funding each year, which is dispersed throughout all of the University’s coordinate campuses, Dodds said. The schools are responsible for deciding which students receive money and how much, she said.

Students qualify for the maximum award — $2,800 — if their household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, she said. Still, for 12 months of child care, the average cost is more than four times the maximum amount of aid allocated.

With rising costs, families feel financial burden

In some cases, parents pay more for day care than they do for their schooling.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, average child care costs in Minnesota exceeded that of in-state tuition at public universities in 2014.

Law student Edward Fleming has two children and commutes to the University from St. Cloud. He said that on top of tuition, his child care expenses range anywhere from $1,200 to $1,500 every month.

In the spring, Fleming testified in front of the Minnesota Senate, advocating for an amendment to the grant.

He testified that although he and his fiancé — who works a full-time job — may be in a better financial position than other students, and while he’s able to take out extra loans for child care expenses, they still barely get by as costs add up.

Last Thursday, Fleming was denied a grant because students are only eligible for funds during the first four years of graduate school, which he had surpassed.

Murid Amini, father of a six-month-old, also testified to the legislature, and said any support student-parents can get for child care helps.

Amini, who graduated in the spring with a Master of Business Administration, said the grant would make school expenses a little easier and more palatable.

Advocates faced a few opponents, who questioned if sharing the subsidies with professional and graduate students was as important as undergraduate degrees, said Levi Bursch, a professional student who lobbied for the child care grant change.

And others preferred that undergraduate students receive more money or be allowed to receive the grant for five years instead of the current maximum of four, Dodds said.

But members of PSG urged legislators to consider how the extra money could benefit disadvantaged students who want to pursue graduate and professional degrees, Bursch said.

“What it came down to is … providing equal access,” he said.

Families still struggle to find care

Fleming and Amini both said when they first came to the University, they tried looking for child care programs or financial aid but had trouble finding a sympathetic ear.

“The initiative, more often than not, is on the student-parent to find out about aid,” Fleming said.

Fleming and Amini, who both use child care outside of the University, said they struggled to find affordable child care programs in the area.

Fleming said aside from the Student Parent HELP Center, he isn’t aware of any other campus resources for student-parents.

Susan Warfield, director of the SPHC, said the HELP Center serves 200 to 300 undergraduate students and 30 to 40 graduate students each semester.

She said the HELP Center also distributes information about other child care resources, such as the Como Student Community Cooperative. But direct child care is in limited supply at the University, mostly because of legal liability.

Child care is heavily licensed and regulated; the University is legally liable when it admits the care of a child, she said, and if a child is hurt on University property, that would be grounds for a potential lawsuit.

The University has one primary child care facility, the University Child Development Center, Warfield said.

The Child Development Center accepts a limited number of children of University faculty, staff and students, she said.

“Very few students get in because the waitlists are so long,” Warfield said.

The waitlist for the facility is not a new topic. According to a Minnesota Daily article from 1985, there was a waitlist for the program as it gained notice.

“I can’t tell you what a good deal it is,” said Chris Brown Mahoney — a graduate student in 1985 — in the article. “When you can’t find decent child care, it’s really awful to be thinking about that all day when you really care about how your kid grows up.”

Warfield said there are a lot more resources and support programs to ease the financial tensions student-parents feel now than there were 20 years ago.

“Our primary target is the parent themselves,” she said.