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Emporia State University plans to close its campus child care facility at the end of next August, and already parents are stressed. The announcement was made in May, but even 15 months feels like short notice given the limited options for child care in rural Kansas. The move has become a source of friction on campus.
"Many, like myself, thought surely ESU wouldn't just not provide childcare!" biological sciences professor Erika Martin said by email. "My initial reaction was outrage and disbelief—but now I would describe my feelings more as disappointed but not surprised."
But the drama playing out over one child care center in Kansas is a microcosm of the struggles felt across higher education and the broader business world as workers struggle to find coverage for their kids. Experts note that while jobs are plentiful, many eligible candidates are frozen out of the workforce by their inability to secure affordable child care.
Adding to workforce concerns, a recent report from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources found that a lack of childcare subsidies or discounts was one the highest areas of dissatisfaction for employee in higher education, many of whom are considering leaving their jobs.
Though officials at Emporia State say the decision to close the campus child care center is the result of a variety of factors and has been in the works for years, that brings little consolation to working parents.
The Decision to Close
Plans to tear down the aging Butcher Education Center, the building that houses the Center for Early Childhood Education, have been on the books since 2014, explained Emporia State spokesperson Gwen Larson. With the coming demolition, campus officials decided to reevaluate the programs housed therein, including the early childhood education program.
Part of the reason for the change is that the center was initially a "laboratory school for our students in the teacher's college," Larson said. But, over the years, the teacher’s education program has evolved and now sends students into K-12 classrooms across the state, meaning the center was no longer needed as a training ground.
"The bottom line was that the Center for Early Childhood Education was no longer sustainable," Larson said. "On top of that, it was not a service widely used by our students, faculty, or staff."
At the time the closure was announced, Larson said the center served 40 students.
Now Martin wonders how working parents on campus will handle meetings and classes or conduct fieldwork without child care once the center officially closes.
Martin also worries about how the absence of campus child care will affect hiring and retention at Emporia State. And what about students who rely on campus child care? Where will they turn?
"If the staff and faculty can't find places for their children, some will not return to work at ESU," Martin said. "If students can't find childcare, they will not be attending college at ESU. If money is a reason to close it, I wonder how this closure will increase the loss in tuition and cost of recruitment as unsupported staff and faculty leave. This will result in a loss at multiple levels."
Emporia State has pledged to help affected parents find child care alternatives but Martin said so far that response has been limited to sharing a list of other providers, many of whom have long waitlists. Meanwhile, Martin and other parents have signed on to a petition urging ESU leadership to keep the child care center open. Additionally, she said an ESU Caregivers group is working on ideas of their own, looking at spaces that could serve as a child care facility, developing a budget for staffing and preparing plans that they hope to present to Emporia State President Ken Hush.
The Ongoing Child Care Crisis
Emporia State is hardly alone in closing its child care center. The University of Vermont shuttered its on-campus facility in 2020; Mount Holyoke and Curry College followed suit in 2021, just to name a few. The closure of such facilities isn't limited to the higher ed world. A recent report from the nonprofit advocacy group Child Care Aware of America found that nearly 16,000 providers across the U.S. closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving parents with limited options.
Prior to the pandemic, campus child care facilities were already on the decline, according to a 2016 report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research; while 55 percent of four-year public colleges provided such services in 2003, that share fell to 49 percent in 2015. At the community college level, the decrease was more pronounced, with 53 percent offering campus child care in 2003 compared to 44 percent in 2015. Those declines have taken place even as colleges enroll more degree-seeking parents.
In addition to limited access, parents are also dealing with staggering prices.
"Many people live in what we call child care deserts, and don't have access to a [child care] program. For those that do have access, the trend in prices is just as challenging," said Anne Hedgepeth, deputy chief of policy at Child Care Aware of America.
Child care costs have outpaced soaring inflation, Hedgepeth said, more expensive than in-state tuition at a public four-year university and, in some regions of the U.S., even pricier than housing. Yet the wages for child care providers remain low, further exacerbating the child care crisis. In addition, a significant number of workers have departed the field since the pandemic began.
"People are leaving the [child care] workforce to go on and pursue less stressful, better-paying jobs," said Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the nonprofit National Child Care Association. "And college campuses are not going to be excluded from that. Another thing that's going to hurt the college campuses: some colleges have discontinued their teaching or early childhood degrees for lack of participation. People aren't going after these degrees, because they've learned that even if this is what they want to do, they can't afford to do it and have a life."
In her eyes, the hiring crisis and the child care crisis -- which she believes is partly responsible for driving women out of the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic -- are directly linked.
Hedgepeth offers a similar opinion.
"What we do know is that we have business leaders saying clearly that child care is impacting their workforce. They may not be able to retain workers who need to leave because of childcare disruptions, they may not be able to hire workers because [candidates] can't find childcare. Or they may just see disruptions day to day because of the impact that the lack of access to childcare has," Hedgepeth said.
And while remote work has spiked during the pandemic, even remote employees still need child care.
"People that work at home with young children still want childcare in most cases," Lehnhoff said, noting that it can be difficult to manage infants and toddlers while balancing work responsibilities.
The fall of federally protected abortion rights with the Supreme Court's recent Dobbs v. Jackson ruling further complicates the picture. If the U.S. sees an uptick in childbirths, how will parents find child care in a system that is already stretched thin and getting even worse?
Experts see a need for greater investment from the federal government. Until that happens, they believe parents will continue to feel the squeeze of long waiting lists and high costs for child care, a ripple effect that will stretch into student success and female workforce participation. And as childcare centers across the U.S. continue to close, colleges will be no exception to the trend.
(This story has been updated to reflect that Martin does not in fact have a child enrolled at the Emporia State child care center.)