Securing care for her two daughters, ages 5 and 10, is a perpetually stressful endeavor for one Washington State University Tri-Cities graduate student.
Though both girls are in school, Maria Lopez, 30, still has to have someone watch them when both are out of school and she’s in class or working on campus.
She relies heavily on family members but they aren’t always available. Money is tight so most licensed day care centers cost too much, she said.
Even if they were affordable, there are so few open slots, particularly between Lopez’s home in Benton City and the north Richland university campus, she still couldn’t enroll her kids in them.
“Being a college student, it’s hard,” said Lopez, who is also a single parent. “You don’t want to put college before your kids, but you’re doing this for them.”
Lopez and other WSU Tri-Cities students with children could get a helping hand from the university in the coming months — a task force has recommended a child care center either on or near campus, with priority to students who need affordable and flexible options as they juggle school, work and family obligations.
“Almost every public university in the state of Washington provides some form of service in different arrangements and ... WSU Tri-Cities is vulnerable in continuing to attract students without a service that assists in retention efforts,” the task force’s final report said.
The university, which has historically served older students who also have jobs and families, looked at the issue of child care as far back as 2001, according to memos included in the report. More than a quarter of about 500 students, staff and faculty who responded to a survey indicated they had at least one child in care. Almost all said they’d struggled to find appropriate care for their children.
A more recent survey last fall had fewer respondents but similar statistical results. Nearly all said there needs to be more accessible child care and there should be options on campus. More than half said they’d use it during the day but a number said they would need it for their evening classes.
“An affordable alternative for child care would take a tremendous burden off of students already putting their all into school,” one survey respondent said. “I have two small children and pay nearly $2,000 a month for child care.”
WSU Tri-Cities’ student government, as at other universities and colleges such as Columbia Basin College in Pasco, offers a reimbursement program for students who need help with child care expenses. However, the program only helps cover the cost of a licensed day care provider. Such providers cost as much as $1,000 a month for a child to receive full-time care, Lopez said.
More than half of recently surveyed student parents rely on family and friends to watch their kids. Lopez pays between $200 to $300 a month for this help. While more affordable, it is still a financial strain, Lopez said, and doesn’t qualify for reimbursement because it’s unlicensed care.
“If it weren’t for that (help from my family), I don’t know if I’d be working on my masters,” she said.s
The university itself likely wouldn’t provide the day care, the task force report said, noting the liability and cost of running such an operation and the dearth of available space. Instead, an outside contractor would likely provide the service, much as how Eastern Washington University provides its child care services for students with children. It’s unknown when the university could hire such a provider and where they would set up shop.
“The university is considering options that could include a request for proposal that would address this recommendation,” said Vice Chancellor Chris Meiers in an email. “If and when this request for proposal goes out, we work with faculty, staff and of course students to ensure the needs of the students, are addressed in the best possible manner.”
Some student respondents to the recent survey said a pay rate of less than $300 a month for child care would be affordable to them. However, the task force determined that wouldn’t be sustainable. And establishment of a university-affiliated day care would likely lead to the end of the current reimbursement program.
“Funding should be directed to the child care service to help offset child care rates for students and ensure more access to all students with children,” the report said.
Regardless, Lopez said she and other parents attending classes or working at WSU Tri-Cities are eager to see the university move forward with helping them balance their lives between home, work and campus.
“It’s something that every campus should have,” she said.