Student parents are not a homogenous group and face a variety of issues depending on marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, adoption, as well as the number and age of their children. However, there are several recurring themes that need to be addressed, such as parental leave, financial support, healthcare, childcare, lactation spaces, and university-wide institutional support.
NU’s current childbirth accommodation policy for graduate students grants mothers six weeks of paid leave—just half of the amount of time granted to faculty and staff. Even the term childbirth accommodation, as opposed to family leave granted for faculty and staff, is not inclusive; it only applies to “women graduate students prior to or following the birth of a child.” Fathers, same sex partners, or adoptive parents are not guaranteed ANY paid leave as graduate students. This imbalance creates an inequality between men and women as caregivers and is not inclusive of the diverse families that we have in our community. Research shows that by not offering men parental leave, women are less likely to take their maternity leave for fear of losing competitive edge with their male colleagues. Another problem is that many women are given false information and think that maternity leave is unpaid.
- Provide graduate students with the same parental leave benefits granted to faculty and staff.
- Educate DGS’s and students about parental leave polices and resources for graduate students
A family of four that relies entirely on a graduate student stipend (approx. $23,000) lives below the federal poverty level. Grad students in this situation have little choice but to take on additional student debt or go on public assistance, such as WIC food stamps, in order to pay for things like health insurance, childcare, rent, and food.
- Offer need-based grants or subsidies for student parents who have no other source of income for their household, especially single parents and international students, whose spouses are often not allowed to work.
- Help students find external grants and funding, or low interest loans.
At $4,300 per academic year, and set to increase, the cost to add a single dependent to NU’s student health plan is astronomical. Furthermore, this money must be paid up front in a lump sum. This is especially daunting for single parents and international couples who support their families entirely from their academic stipend. While many students can and do put their children on public insurance plans, some international spouses are not eligible for these plans.
- Create more affordable plans for students to add dependents to their NU Aetna healthcare plans.
- Get rid of the up-front payment requirement and work with students to create payment plans for these fees.
- Help students navigate other options through the state or federal government or private sector.
The cost of childcare is exorbitant, especially for families living off a graduate stipend. Even with the 10% NU discount, full-time care for an infant at Bright Horizons, an NU-affiliated childcare in Evanston, costs approximately $1,800 per month. Furthermore, the school subsidies are not compatible with many graduate students’ living situations. The subsidies can only be used for full-time care at one of four daycare centers in Evanston and downtown, which often have long wait lists. Most students don’t need (or can’t afford) full-time care, and many live in other areas of the city, like the more affordable Rogers Park neighborhood. The fee assistance does not apply for less expensive options like in-home care. Although faculty and staff can create Flex Spending Accounts (FSAs) to set aside pre-tax funds for childcare, this program is not available to graduate students.
- Create on-campus childcare with drop-off hours, spaces reserved for the children of students, and tuition on a sliding scale.
- Offer grants/subsidies that students can use for in-home and part-time childcare.
- Allow students to create Flex Spending Accounts.
NU now has 7 lactation spaces (5 for the Evanston campus and 2 for the Chicago campus). To compare, Stanford, which has roughly the same size student population as NU, has 27 spaces; Johns Hopkins, with comparable student enrollment and even smaller campus size, has 38 lactation spaces. NU’s existing lactation rooms are overcrowded and inconvenient for many women on campus. It is also difficult for women to gain access to these rooms. Often, the key is located in a different building, or there is a complicated registration process. It is not reasonable to ask a nursing mother to walk across campus several times a day to pump. As student testimonies show, women are currently pumping in their cars, in bathrooms, or asking their lab-mates to leave several times a day. Some give up on breastfeeding altogether, even though it is not their preference to do so. The lack of rooms limits nursing women’s access to the university. This is a problem for faculty and staff, but especially for graduate students who don’t have private offices, and who have classes and meetings scattered across campus.
- Work with facilities to find existing spaces that can be used as lactation rooms. Several buildings already have lactation rooms, but some administrators do not want to share them with students in other departments or schools, so they are not listed in campus-wide online resources that women use to find rooms to pump. This kind of narrow-minded and territorial thinking needs to change.
- Make sure a woman doesn’t have to walk more than 5 minutes to access a lactation room, which is the industry standard recommended in the book Breastfeeding best practices in higher education.
- Make it easier for women to gain access to these rooms. If they are to remain locked, we suggest installing a card-swipe system, where once a woman is enrolled in the program, she can have access to all of the lactation rooms on campus.
- Create an interactive map so women can find the nearest lactation room to where they are located. Include relevant information, like the amenities in each room. Schools like Michigan State and Michigan are excellent examples.
- Designate a certified lactation consultant who is available through the student health center.
Resources for parents are currently scattered across many organizations and websites, including The Graduate School (TGS), HR, and the Women’s Center. It is not clear who a graduate student parent is supposed to contact with questions or concerns. Sometimes students are referred to the Women’s Center, but this excludes fathers, who are sometimes the parental tie to the university. This makes finding up-to-date information difficult and time-consuming for student parents. It is not always clear what programs and supports are available for graduate students versus faculty and staff. For example, many departments refer students to the HR website, but many of those benefits, including parental leave, are only for faculty and staff. This is a major source of confusion. Furthermore, many students don’t take advantage of programs and benefits because they simply aren’t aware that they exist. In other cases, students are given different answers when they seek information. Another problem is that there aren’t any family-friendly spaces on campus, which prevents student parents from building community. While other universities have on-campus family resource centers, NU has no such resource or space. Some parents have been told not to bring their children to campus for liability reasons. Overall, there needs to be more organized, institutional support for families.
- Create an on-campus family resource center, with a meeting space for families.
- Designate a full-time staff adviser to help student parents with questions and concerns (for example, the University of Wisconsin has a “student parent advocate” who has a Masters of Social Work and is trained to provide support for student parents). This person would be the main contact for student parents with questions. Part of their job would to be coordinate between relevant offices, including health insurance, the international office, the women’s center, HR and TGS, as well as to educate DGS’s about existing resources and policies.
- Create a Frequently Asked Questions page with up-to-date answers.
- Do a better job advertising these resources to graduate students and DGS’s.
- Collect better data on student parents, assessing their needs and monitoring graduation rates.
It should be noted that many of these issues and suggestions have been raised in the annual graduate student survey, whose results and recommendations are presented to administrators. Student parents also met with TGS administrators in 2009 to address similar concerns. However, little has been done to address these recurring problems.
We recognize that such programs cost money and resources. However, the cost of not doing anything is also high. If students lack support, they are more likely to take longer to achieve their degree, which costs the university more in the long run. In some cases, student parents who are stretched too thin simply drop out. This is a loss not only to the students and their families who have put in so much time and effort, but also to the university, departments, and advisers that have invested in their academic success.
NU is one of the ten richest universities in the country, with an endowment of nearly $8 billion. The university is also in the middle of a $3.5 billion fundraising campaign, which states in its mission:
We believe access to a world-class education should not depend on one’s financial resources — and that a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences benefits every student. We seek to attract the very best students — undergraduate and graduate — by offering competitive financial aid.
Having children is a valuable life experience that contributes to the diversity of this community. In making these requests, we are only asking that NU live up to its professed values and provide comparable resources offered by our peer institutions.
We think NU can and should do better.