When Elizabeth Mills accepted a job with Oregon State University in 2016 and decided to move from Florida to Oregon, the biggest issue on her mind was child care. Her daughter and son were both toddlers at the time, and she began researching her options immediately.

“Two issues became instantly apparent: child care was very expensive in Corvallis and availability was very limited,” she said.

Mills, who is the global internships manager at Oregon State, had eight weeks to secure child care for her children. She tried to consider all options, including putting the kids in separate facilities, driving out of town, and anything else she could patch together. She was also seriously concerned about the cost.

“My daycare costs for two kids in a full-time center add up to more than half of my take home pay; it’s more expensive to send them to preschool than to send them to college,” she said. Eventually Mills found spots for both her children at the same local facility, and she also discovered that OSU offers a limited number of FriendRaiser grants to faculty and staff parents who need help paying for child care costs. She was able to secure a grant for 2017-18, and said it made an enormous difference to her family.

“As a single mom, my budget is already tight. Without the grant from FriendRaisers, my family would have had to make additional cuts and make some big decisions about what was most important in our quality of life,” she said. “I’m so grateful that I get to live close to OSU’s campus, have my kids close by at an on-campus facility and enjoy the OSU community together with them.”

The OSU Family Resource Center is able to offer a very limited number of small grants to Oregon State employees through a modest endowment, the FriendRaisers Child Care Assistance Fund, set up through the OSU Foundation. This coming year, Amy Luhn, director of the Family Resource Center, said they will distribute between $5,000 and $10,000 to applicants, more than normal thanks to an unexpected gift earlier this year. But the money doesn’t go far, and even employees who receive the largest amount, $1,000 per school year/9-month period, find their costs reduced only a small amount. But that amount can make the difference in being able to afford child care at all.

Cost and access

Mills’ story is not uncommon. There are two big issues facing parents in Corvallis who need child care. One is access - there simply aren’t that many child care facilities in town, and strict city limits on where new facilities can be built. The second is cost. Full-time infant and child care costs exceed the costs of college tuition at a public Oregon university (The average cost of full-time child care is $14,340 a year. This year’s 2018-2019 cost of in-state tuition and fees at Oregon State is $11,211).

The average cost of fulltime child care in Corvallis is $1,195 a month. Based on that cost, an office specialist 2 at Oregon State would be paying around 43 percent of their salary toward child care, and a professional faculty coordinator would be spending about 25 percent of their income annual on child care. The U.S. Department of Human Services says child care should account for only 10 percent of a family’s budget.

Child Care Assistance funds can help offset that cost, and for Oregon State students, there are a number of assistance programs, funded in large part by student fee funds, that can greatly reduce child care costs, if they can even find available child care that meets their quality standard. But Oregon State employees do not have the same access to assistance programs.

In 2014, the Office of Child Care and Family Resources (now the Family Resource Center) hired an outside consultant to conduct a needs assessment study of the Corvallis campus’ needs and interests around child care. Sixty-three percent (63%) of respondents reported that they had difficulty in finding child care; 66% reported that most care was too expensive and 53% reported that programs were already filled.

One of two vendor-operated child care facilities on campus, Beaver Beginnings, does offer reduced tuition for employees, and with 144 available slots, half of those are reserved for student parents. However, the waitlist to access the center can be more than a year. OSU’s newest child care center, Azalea House, is a community market rate center, meaning that cost aligns more closely with local centers in the Corvallis area. Azalea House, which serves 46 children, has a 12 to 18 month-long wait list.

In addition to Beaver Beginnings and Azalea House, there is a part-time preschool at the Child Development Center/Bates Hall, and two small Our Little Village drop-in, short-term free child care centers for student parents in Dixon Recreation Center and Valley Library.  Additionally, KidSpirit offers child care and enrichment programming during non-public school days and throughout the summer months.

Meeting the need

Alice Mills Morrow, a retired Oregon State University Extension family resource specialist, was one of the faculty members involved in raising money to open Beaver Beginnings in the early 1990s. She said the idea arose because more student parents were coming to the university, and family demographics were shifting across the university. More single parents and families with two working parents were coming to OSU as faculty and staff members, and needed support.

“Child care is a huge expense and quality developmental child care was hard to find,” she said. Although not a parent herself, Morrow’s area of focus was family economics, and she saw a huge unmet need at OSU.

“From a student point of view, student parents get through college faster if they have support for child care, and it helps attract good faculty and staff. A family friendly campus is really appealing,” she said.

Beaver Beginnings was the first step in an ongoing attempt to support families at OSU, and Morrow also became involved as a donor and fundraiser for the OSU Child Care FriendRaisers. Originally the group gave out grants just for parents with children attending Beaver Beginnings, but has since expanded it to those using licensed child care providers around the area.

“It’s a need that’s not going to go away,” said Morrow, who is no longer on the board but still donates to the fund. “ Sometimes we don’t appreciate how difficult it is to find affordable, quality child care. We have to become more aware of what’s going on in the lives of our students, faculty and staff, and also how the quality of child care can make a huge difference in a child’s life and predict how they’ll do in school later on.”

While Morrow would love to see the small endowment grow to help more parents, she said the ones that do receive help report the big difference it makes in their lives. She said helping a parent afford child care may help a parent keep a job or prevent them from a bigger downward financial spiral.

“We can’t help that many but the ones we help, it really makes a difference,” she said.

Losing candidates

Frequently, incoming faculty members who inquire about child care access during the hiring process are referred to Luhn’s office. While Luhn touts all the great things about living in Corvallis and working at OSU, she is honest about cost and lack of availability. And at least seven times in the last few years, Luhn has learned that candidates have turned down jobs at the university in favor of universities who offered more child care support.

“We are losing preferred candidates because we can’t provide access to affordable child care,” Luhn said. “Child care is not a life enhancement. It’s a necessity. Access to affordable child care can make or break a person’s ability to return to academic pursuits or work after their children are born. And it can make a difference in whether people choose to come to work here in the first place.”

The 2014 needs assessment study also linked child care to retention of students and faculty. One hundred and four faculty and staff and 85 students reported that they have contemplated either leaving the OSU workforce or withdrawing from OSU because of a lack of satisfactory child care arrangements.

There is hope for expanding child care access on campus. If the second floor of Azalea House was renovated, it would double the number of infants and children currently being served at the Child Care Center. But the cost is roughly $3 million and there is no money earmarked to fund it. Luhn dreams of stumbling upon a donor willing to take on the project.

Additionally, Luhn would love to expand the donations to the FriendRaisers’ endowment to offer even more parents some financial help. Morrow agrees.

“None of us got where we are by ourselves. We all had help, and it’s our job to pay that back,” Morrow said. “There’s no such thing as a small donation. Every bit helps.”

~ Theresa Hogue