‘The cost for child care is almost my entire monthly stipend as a graduate student’

Covid-19 pandemic and rising child care costs pose new challenges for student parents

A photo of a day care room full of children sitting around a table alongside their caregiver.

Jenna Lubet is a busy woman: a graduate business student, a USC employee, and a mother of two preschool aged children. Her responsibilities include planning out her schedule, from waking up early in the morning to deciding what to shop for and cook during the week. For Lubet, child care is a lifeline.

“Child care is maybe the thing that I think about most when in our day to day lives outside of work,” Lubet said while rocking and feeding her infant daughter. “I think about it when we don’t have it. I think about it when we do have it. I can’t describe how it’s any more essential than that.”

USC students with children have long faced challenges balancing academics and child care. But the rising cost of child care, stagnating wages and complications brought by the pandemic, have disrupted this balance.

In April 2021, the Biden administration budgeted $1.8 trillion to expand access to child care, among other initiatives, by taxing rich Americans at a higher rate. The endeavor, known as the American Families Plan, aims to help low and middle-income families spend no more than 7% of their income on child care of high quality.

For Lubet, the high cost of child care has made a steady income an important part of parenthood. It’s so expensive that she said some of her friends of the same age have delayed having kids.

“I can say that the cost of tuition for daycare for two kids is more than the cost of our mortgage in Los Angeles, which is saying a lot,” Lubet said. “You can’t expect to have individuals accept a job that only pays them $20 an hour when to pay somebody to watch your child is probably $15 an hour.”

The USC Graduate Student Government Childcare Subsidy Grant has a limited number of grants to help eligible students with child care. Applicants have to indicate how child care needs are more burdensome and demonstrate financial need while attending school. The funding is limited to $1,500 for each student per semester and $3,000 every academic year.

Kate Vavra-Musser, a fifth year Ph.D. student in the population, health and place program, serves as the director of campus affairs for USG, overseeing the Childcare Subsidy Grant. She said that USG “expanded” the program during the COVID-19 pandemic, because many “new child care needs were arising” and many student parents asked for educational materials, online classes and other resources to support them.

“We’re seeing more and more of those kinds of requests,” Vavra-Musser said. “I don’t believe that the Childcare Subsidy Grant was ever specifically restricted only to child care, but I believe that that was kind of the original driving focus when it was created.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the search for suitable child care. Lubet was forced to remove her child from KinderCare’s day care facility in July, located about a mile from the USC campus, where she said some teachers working in the infant room were “refusing to get vaccinated.”

“We were pretty alarmed by that because we’re like, ‘You’re working with infants, and they are the most susceptible, the most fragile,’” Lubet said.

KinderCare is a national chain and Lubet expressed her concerns to their corporate office about unvaccinated teachers in their infant rooms.

For some student parents at the university, the need for a remote studying option is greater than ever before, said Lubet. The return to full time in-person classes in the fall caused significant challenges for parents.

“All classes went online, you know, and we were at home, the [online] classes were so much easier to handle while also having a kid,” she said.

Lubet stressed the importance of inclusivity in graduate programs with regards to gender roles associated with child care. She said that for the university to be more inclusive of women, it should accommodate women with children and make provisions for remote learning.

“If you want to be inclusive of women in graduate programs, you need to be more supportive of the fact that women have kids,” Lubet said. “If they can attend a class remotely it would greatly help.”

As a student parent, an executive member of the graduate student government and a fifth year Ph.D. candidate at the Keck School of Medicine, Brandon McFarlin thinks that the pandemic made the search for child care easier. Parents became skeptical about sending their children to child care centers because of concerns about the safety measures, he said. This opened up space for new admits instead of the long waiting lists typical of the pre-pandemic era. However, the high cost of child care remains.

“Cost is a huge issue, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily just here [Los Angeles],” McFarlin said. “In a lot of places we looked at, the cost for child care is almost my entire monthly stipend as a graduate student.”

He created a Facebook group for student parents who have questions related to child care. He posts notes about day care facilities and asks other parents for suggestions.

USC offers child care for student parents and employees through Bright Horizons at the University Park and Health Sciences campuses.

Annenberg Media reached out to KinderCare and Bright Horizons for comment multiple times but received no response.

For student parents who are looking for resources on USC child care service, information is available on the The GSG Childcare Subsidy Grant Program website, the Bright Horizons at University Park website, USC WiSE, USC Basic Needs and the USC Center for Work and Family Life.