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“In the United States and Europe, around half of those who gain doctoral degrees in science and engineering are female — but barely one-fifth of full professors are women. Women are not invited in significant numbers to sit on the scientific advisory boards of start-up companies. A scientific conference at which half of the keynote speakers are women stands out simply because of that. Why has progress stalled? Child care is one major factor that blocks the career of many women.”

— Nature 495, 5 (March 7, 2013)

Although nearly 600 graduate students at MIT have children, according to the results from the recently completed quality of life survey, finding reliable and high quality child care at MIT or the surrounding Cambridge area is extremely challenging. Local child care centers, like MIT’s affiliated TCC sites, have waitlists longer than 2 years and commonly charge monthly tuition of up to $2,500 per child for infant care. This translates to getting on a list 24 months prior to birth and saving an entire year’s worth of stipend to accommodate a new family member.

Availability and price are not the only challenges with Cambridge-area child care. Being a graduate student at MIT is not a 9-to-5 job, and many academic responsibilities, like research experiments, recitations, and project meetings, occur after business hours. More often than not, the ongoing child care arrangements cannot accommodate these irregular hours, putting strain on graduate families. This is all in addition to the common interruptions that all families experience in their regular child care arrangements, such as the sudden illness of their child or their child’s caretaker. Having access to affordable, high-quality short-term child care is an essential first step in addressing the graduate students’ need for child care support.

Competitiveness and Peer Models

In the same way that companies attract employees and academia courts faculty with child care benefits, an increasing number of our peer institutions have realized that in order to recruit and support the most talented students, regardless of whether they have children or not, universities need to offer family-friendly policies and benefits.

One important example of family-friendly policies is paid maternity leave — MIT offers this benefit for students through the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education. MIT also provides numerous parenting support groups, like Spouses&Partners@MIT, and informational resources, like Work-Life Resources 24/7, for graduate families. In spite of these support structures, there is still much more that could be done to make child care options affordable and accessible to MIT student parents, and looking at a number of our peers can provide ideas for different approaches to solving this challenging issue.

Some examples include portable child care grants (up to $5000 annually per child at Princeton); heavily subsidized back-up child care programs (up to 100 hours at the rate of $2-$6 per hour at Princeton and Columbia); paternity leave for male graduate students (6 weeks at Northeastern); low cost and high quality parent-teacher run co-operative child care centers that prioritize student parents in enrollment (Stanford and Caltech); a network of family day care providers (recruited and trained by University of Michigan), who give priority to affiliates of the university; and equal priority in enrollment given to students and faculty in some of the universities’ affiliated child care centers (Stanford, Harvard and Yale). In addition to the above, a number of our peers, like Berkeley, Caltech, University of Michigan, and University of Pennsylvania, have child care grants ranging from $2500 up to $8000 per child available for low-income students eligible for FAFSA. Most recently, Brown University has announced a pilot program for the 2013-2014 academic year to provide child care subsidies of up to $4000 per family on a sliding scale based on income. This benefit will be available for employees and students. In a recent university announcement on June 12, the university’s provost, Mark Schlissel, articulated the reasoning behind creating this benefit: “Offering an income-adjusted child care subsidy aligns with our commitment to being an employer of choice, and acknowledges the needs of families with young children.”

Though no university does it perfectly, the trend around the country is to support and de-stigmatize the family unit within universities — regardless of gender, nationality, or position within the university.

The GSC heard you

The Graduate Student Council (GSC) has long acknowledged the urgency and complexity of the problem with a lack of affordable Cambridge-area child care options, and we felt it was critical that we begin addressing these issues in a concrete way.

On April 3, the GSC passed a historic resolution to use approximately $38,000 of its own budget to create a new Family Child Care Fund, which aims to bring affordable short-term child care to graduate students. The MIT Work-Life Center and the Office of the Provost, with the support of the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education and the Office of the Chancellor, contributed additional financial resources to the creation of a new pilot program to provide access to affordable backup child care for student parents.

This pilot program, launched on July 1, 2013, will be re-evaluated for continuation after one year. It will allow all MIT students with children to receive access to short-term child care through free membership in the Parents in a Pinch in-home back-up child care service at a rate of $5 per hour (subsidized from the current market rate for back-up child care of $15-$25 per hour, plus several hundreds of dollars in placement and membership fees).

The goal of this program is two-fold: first, we hope it will create a safety net for students with families when they need child care during emergencies; and second, we hope students can use this service to participate more in planned activities like academic conferences, as well as graduate community life. We hope it will help many families achieve a better work-life balance and reduce some of the stress and anxiety related to balancing work duties with the responsibilities of being a parent.

We would like to thank Kathy Simons, Dean Christine Ortiz, Chancellor Eric Grimson and Provost Chris Kaiser for helping make this program a reality. Finally, we want to acknowledge the incredible patience and grace that our graduate students with children have demonstrated in the long push for improved services. Your silent perseverance has made all of this truly possible.

A new way of thinking

We are very excited about the formation of this child care program, but we are even more excited that this might be the start of a new way of thinking at MIT — that choosing to have a family while in graduate school is a lifestyle choice that is supported as much by our community as by any other. We believe that this step by the GSC and the Institute helps strengthen the “one MIT” vision delivered by President L. Rafael Reif, and we commend the Institute for taking a step in this progressive new direction.

Questions or comments? Please email gsc-hca-family-chair@mit.edu.

Anna Häggman is the GSC Families Subcommittee chair; Marzyeh Ghassemi is the GSC Housing & Community Affairs chair; Alap Dighe was the GSC 2012-2013 vice-president; and Brian Spatocco was the 2012-2013 GSC president.