The University commissioned a report six years ago to examine the needs of student-parents. They found a long list of problems. Did they fix anything?

Phil Dokas
Phil Dokas

At 8 a.m. on a weekday morning, the sun is just coming up over a row of Family Housing units on North Campus. Its rays poke through evergreen branches, casting orange streaks on the sides of townhouses. Near Central Campus, students are waking up to yards littered with empty red plastic cups and rusty bicycles. Not here. On the edge of campus, small bikes with training wheels are strewn about the sidewalks and plastic playhouses are anchored next to tiny pink kitchenettes in massive sandboxes.

Inside one townhouse, LSA junior Koretta Gray hurries to get out of the door. She’s been up since 6 a.m. Not only does she have to dress, eat and prepare herself for the day, she has to coax her son, Andrew, to complete the routine with her. She must do all this in time to drop him off at day care, catch the bus and make it her early class.

Her persuasion is gentle, but insistent.

“Time to get up, got to go to school today,” she says, flipping the light on in Andrew’s room.

The 4-year-old opens his large brown eyes, sees his mother and dives back under the covers. Feebly, he protests.

“I don’t want to go to school!”

“Come on, Baby Gray,” she says, wading her way through the toy train tracks and miniature boxcars on the floor. Finally, the 28-year-old communications major succeeds, and Andrew, still clad in blue footie pajamas, heads off to the bathroom.

For students like Gray who balance the roles of parent and pupil, a daily routine is no easy task. Most carry a full load of classes to ensure the flow of all-important financial aid. Not only do they attend class, complete homework and take tests, they negotiate their schedules with their children’s spontaneous needs – typically harder to handle than exams.

It’s unclear how many student-parents are at the University. The administration has no formal system for tracking them. On most standard forms it is illegal to inquire about a students’ familial status, so administrators rely on voluntary online surveys of those most likely to have children – graduate students, professional students and undergraduates who claim dependents on their financial aid forms. In a 2004 survey sent to about 15,000 students, 1,286 of 5,280 respondents reported having or expecting children.

Six years ago, several concerned voices called on the University to examine and improve the condition of student-parents. Then-University Provost Nancy Cantor commissioned a 20-person Student Parent Task Force to examine the needs of students like Gray.

At the time, discontent over the lack of resources for student-parents was growing on campus. Shortly after the committee first convened, the Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike, in part because of what members called a serious deficit in child care subsidies.

In June 2001, the task force submitted a 50-page report to Cantor with 25 recommendations to improve conditions for student families. The report found, among other things, that student-parents needed more understanding from professors who sometimes criticized their dual roles, more baby-changing stations in campus bathrooms and a way to better extend University health insurance to cover dependents. Northwood Family Housing, where about 23 percent of student-parents live, lacked high-speed internet access. On top of that, the task force said, the University needed to better advertise the services it already had. Many student-parents had little or no knowledge of the resources available to them.

Task force member Beth Sullivan, a policy associate at the Center for the Education of Women, said the report was well-received. But it was poorly timed, issued just a month before Cantor left to take the chancellorship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“It was given a ‘that looks great, but I’m leaving,’ sort of response,” Sullivan said.

Six months later, Cantor’s successor, Paul Courant, took up the report’s recommendation. Supportive of the movement, Courant created the Committee on Student Parent Issues, a group of researchers, faculty, student-parents and GEO members. He gave them three years – and $450,000 – to fix things. They had a lot of work to do.

Sorry professor, my kid ate my homework

Like many student-parents, Gray’s academic career has been non-traditional.

She came to the University straight out of high school in 1996. She spent her first two years trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She took a lot of French, some ballet classes, other odds and ends. In her second year, she copied her friend’s schedule, clueless as to what she wanted to study. Then she realized she had to make a change.

“I thought, ‘if I keep this up, I’m going to graduate with some kind of weird degree that won’t help me in anything,'” she said.

By April 1998, she’d finally decided on an interest: cooking. Dismayed she could not pursue her studies at the University, she said goodbye to Ann Arbor. That fall, she enrolled in a culinary arts program at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.

She enjoyed her studies and met Brian Gray, whom she married in 2000 after graduating with an associate’s degree in culinary arts.

Soon after graduation, she was managing the kitchen in a four-star restaurant. But she grew weary of the job, and after she became pregnant, she switched to real estate.

Andrew was born on his due date, Sept. 17, 2002. After several months of trying to be both a busy professional and a mother with an infant, she decided it was too much.

“(I thought) I’ll relinquish my rights to be a working woman and just enjoy (being a mom),” she said. “But I knew eventually I had to get out of it.”

And so in March she and her husband packed up their small family and moved to Ann Arbor. She re-enrolled at the University, this time with a clear vision of what she wanted to study: mass media marketing and syndication.

For the most part, she and her family have found Ann Arbor hospitable. Andrew, she said, loves the Northwood neighborhood and the Child Development Center, where he spends weekdays. Her husband, a former member of the Army National Guard, found a job working with mentally challenged adults at Spectrum Services in Scio Township. By summer 2006, they’d settled in, just in time for Gray to jump back into school work.

Undergraduates like Gray who go to school while raising kids are few and far between: In the 2004 survey, only 9 percent of student-parents were pursuing bachelor’s degrees.

Undergraduate parents often fly below the radar. And because the situation is a social oddity, they often don’t tell others about their families. She’s not ashamed of her family, but Gray rarely tells professors and classmates about Brian and Andrew.

“I contemplated whether I should say whether I was a returning student with a child and a husband,” she said. “I didn’t want to use my family for an excuse for why I couldn’t do things.”

Members of Courant’s committee said student-parents who let professors know about their children are sometimes criticized. Professors, department chairs and fellow students sometimes think that students who split their time between biology class and Tickle-Me-Elmo can’t possibly be committed to their studies.

One student, in a letter to the 2001 task force, wrote, “The whole University system is set up in a way that assumes the normal grad student doesn’t have kids. I then internalize this and feel bizarre that what is quite normal – being a 37-year-old married woman with a kid – feels abnormal in this context.”

In October of 2004, the committee tried to solve the problem through education, sending out a memo to deans and department chairs telling them to talk to their staffs. But not surprisingly, the memo wasn’t enough. Two years later, Sullivan said the hostile climate is one of the top issues facing student-parents on campus. Without more institutionalized action, this sentiment could linger indefinitely.

Rent, tuition and Gerber’s

Gray is not a natural complainer. When pressed, her few complaints about juggling her motherly and scholarly duties are small and not unlike the grumblings of every busy student. She has a heavy load of reading this semester and is amazed that while she can finish a thick paperback novel in a day, it takes her three hours to read 50 textbook pages. She laments her bad luck in catching buses (“I’m constantly missing them by seconds”), and wishes the student employment website would purge old jobs more frequently so she’d have an easier time finding a way to use her work-study award.

But when it comes to child care, Gray’s voice joins the plaintive student parent chorus. The sound is complex, but can be reduced to one melody: It’s too expensive.

“It’s the most I’ve ever paid and it’s the most I ever want to pay,” she said.

Jennie McAlpine, director of Work/Life Programs, the University’s department which strives to keep internal policies family-friendly, pointed out that for in-state students, child care is more expensive than tuition. Full-time care for babies can be even more expensive, costing over $12,000 per year.

Counting fees, tuition and charges for extended hours, the Gray family pays about $900 per month in child care costs. In their budget, only rent costs more. Not much more – the couple pays $1,092 per month for their two-bedroom apartment.

Financial aid, though, can ease some of the stress on family budgets. Award amounts for student parents have increased over the years.

“For toddlers and school-age children, the subsidy is coming closer to the cost of care,” said Margaret Rodriguez, associate director of the Office of Financial Aid.

She added that child care subsidies will likely stay constant in the future. The maximum awardable subsidy is adjusted each July to keep pace with costs at the University’s five on-campus day care centers.

Both Sullivan and Rodriguez noted that compared with peer institutions, the University is a leader in dollars available to assist student-parents. Administrators are continuing to look for ways to further subsidize the cost of child care.

For example, McAlpine said that over the coming year she plans to investigate the possibility of creating low-interest, interest-deferred child care loans – similar to a normal student loan – to help decrease out-of-pocket costs for student-parents. This would allow parents to repay the loans when they are further along in their careers and have a larger flow of income. Plus, their children would be older, possibly in elementary school by this time, making child care costs dramatically lower at the time they would have to pay back the loans.

Gray’s subsidy of about $1,800 covers Andrew’s child care for about two months each semester. She and her husband have to come up with funds to cover the rest of it – all on a single salary – the lowest they’ve had in almost seven years of marriage.

A higher subsidy could alleviate their strained pocketbooks, but administrators and researchers say outside of annual increases to keep pace with rising costs, award amounts won’t to go up anytime soon.

Finishing the job (maybe)

Armed with Courant’s mandate, the Committee on Student Parent Issues had remarkable success, especially considering the University’s bureaucratic quagmire that has potential to swallow earnest crusades for improvement. In a memo sent May 31 last year, committee chair Susan Kaufmann proudly reported that her team had tackled all but nine of the Student Parent Task Forces’ 25 recommendations.

Some problems, like breast-feeding mothers’ need for lactation rooms in campus buildings, had been virtually solved.

Others proved more difficult.

Efforts to allow all students to purchase University-sponsored health insurance for themselves and their dependents had hit a formidable barrier.

Kaufmann’s memo quoted Chief Health Officer Robert Winfield saying that the University had explored extending health insurance available through the Michigan Student Assembly – already an option students can select – to students’ dependents. But the small number of students who purchase it, coupled with the phenomenon of adverse selection (in which those who buy insurance are often sick or expect to be sick), squelched M-CARE’s willingness to bid on the extended contract. The University is still considering options to address this need.

There were some victories. Through a new program, administrators dramatically reduced one of the most serious problems: a large deficiency in child care availability for younger children.

Outside of the child care center in the hospital (which is rarely used by student-parents because hospital staff are given priority), there were only 12 part-time spots for toddlers in 2001. There were no spots for infants in any of the four child care programs run by Rackham Graduate School or the Division of Student Affairs. This deficit left many families – especially single-parent families with infants – in a bind.

Using money from a U.S. Department of Education grant, the Work/Life Program and the Center for the Education of Women launched the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program in October 2001.

The program, despite its unfortunate name, works pretty well.

It’s based on the model of a neighborhood babysitter. The program equips, trains and licenses individual care providers. These are students, student spouses and community members who open their home to six to 12 children as a mini-day care center. It allows parents to place their children (especially toddlers and infants) in a smaller setting for longer hours for a fraction of the cost of center-based care.

There are 12 homes in the University network. Together they provide an additional 108 spaces available for kids, increasing capacity by 25 percent.

The grant money ran out at the end of September of 2005, but Courant allocated funds through the provost’s office to carry the private-home program through another two years. McAlpine. Sullivan and others are working to secure money to continue the program beyond Fall 2007. As of now, the future of the program is uncertain.

COSPI’s three-year mandate expired in May 2005. Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, commissioned yet another committee to continue their work. But after May 2007, when that committee is scheduled to disband, the University has no concrete plans to implement the rest of the 2001 task force’s recommendations.

The bureaucratic churnings have no place in the daily interactions of most student-parents’ families. Andrew is too young, too concerned with Thomas the Tank Engine to fret about the operating hours of his daycare center. Gray is too busy reading textbooks, cooking dinner and monitoring her son’s asthmatic symptoms to worry about the installation of lactation rooms in University buildings. Their lives revolve around a world of cartoons, small bicycles and picture books.

When asked what her family does for fun, Gray paused, puzzled. She asked Brian, who asked Andrew, “What do we do for fun?” After contemplating the question and sharing a burst of giggles with her son and husband, Gray answered.

“We can’t afford fun,” she said. “But we have fun somehow.”l

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