When classics professor Marcus Folch and his wife Celeste Fine decided it was time to try for kids, they expected it would take a while for their family to get started. They had no idea they would have twins within a year, much less a third child within two. More surprising was how much they would be paying in childcare costs—$120,000 annually—with only $3,000 a year in assistance from Columbia.
“One child on an academic income at Columbia is really difficult. Two children pushes you below the poverty line,” Folch said. “We have three.”
Folch’s struggle is not uncommon among faculty at Columbia, where the “in the City of New York” mantra comes with a cost of living at least 68 percent greater than in the rest of the country. New York State has the fourth-highest childcare costs in the country, and costs are even higher in the city.
However, Columbia still provides less childcare assistance than its peer institutions, with a flat rate of $3,000 in credit and an option to add $2,000 more from their salary into a tax-free savings account. The University also does not have on-campus childcare services, and for the 12 affiliated early learning centers or programs near Columbia, tuition can run anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Full-time childcare runs from approximately 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., requiring professors to arrange additional care if they work later.
In contrast, Stanford offers need-based programs for faculty of up to $24,000, while SUNY and CUNY—both of which have schools in the city—offer on-site childcare.
Currently, the Policy Planning Committee’s Subcommittee on Childcare and Schooling, which was founded last year, is analyzing data from faculty with the goal of making formal recommendations to University administrators. A Columbia spokesperson also recognized the immediate need to address resources for childcare, both within Arts and Sciences and more broadly across the University.
“This is an issue that has our full attention. The challenges of raising a family in New York are familiar to every parent, and we appreciate the importance of affordable childcare to our current faculty and to Columbia’s ability to attract new faculty. … We look forward to seeing the PPC’s report and recommendations,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement to Spectator.
But both tenured and junior professors within the Arts and Sciences voice that, unless drastic measures are implemented, childcare will remain an unsustainable burden, one which threatens their retention, productivity, and well-being.
According to a survey conducted by the PPC subcommittee, which garnered responses from approximately a third of approximately 800 Arts and Sciences faculty, almost 40 percent of those polled said that their salaries are insufficient to meet childcare needs, and nearly a third said they went into debt. Thirty-eight percent of respondents—including all the professors in this article—said they considered leaving the University to alleviate the financial, emotional, and professional strain of childcare.
And notably, professors report their sacrifices pose a significant obstacle in the quality of education they can provide for their students. Though the potential solutions to childcare burdens may be costly, faculty point to the fact that Columbia is paying another hidden expense: canceled classes, significantly fewer office hours, and less time devoted to meetings with graduate and thesis-advising students.
“I wonder whether the actual costs to the University of the current childcare system outweigh the benefits—you're talking about reduced research, reduced teaching quality, and reduced quality of life for the faculty,” Folch said.
English professor Eleanor Johnson, a member of the PPC Subcommittee on Childcare and Schooling, is also a mother of two children—a three-year-old named Emlyn and a one-year-old named Joanne. For childcare this year, the Johnsons are spending $48,000—which only covers one child full-time, and another half-time. Next year, Johnson said the costs will grow to $62,000.
Because Columbia’s childcare credit does not change based on the number of children within a family unit, their total family childcare benefit will be less than 5 percent of their costs next year.
“We’re burning through our savings very quickly,” Johnson said. “People just cannot afford to have their families at Columbia.”
Columbia has not always offered childcare benefits. The Provost’s office first introduced its Child Care Benefit as a $2,000 contribution to a tax-free flexible spending account, which it recently raised to the current $3,000 amount for individuals making less than $125,000 a year. Although Johnson and other faculty cite their appreciation for these benefits, they said the credit is just a dent in their total need.
When Johnson’s children reach the age of five, she said she’ll face another dilemma: On one hand, she could send them to a private school, which can cost more than $50,000 a year; on the other hand, she could send them to a public school—in a New York system highly competitive, notoriously segregated by years of gerrymandering, and lacking many of the amenities and attention of private schools.
In light of her personal experience as well as testimonies from co-workers, Johnson moved to spearhead the subcommittee on childcare—collecting data and formulating recommendations to alleviate heavy burdens.
“We have to ask ourselves if we want a third of us to be so strained that we go into debt, we seek other jobs, we take our research leave as cash, we seek outside offers—that’s not a good environment. Intellectually, it’s not a good environment, let alone politically and in terms of morale,” she said.
For Folch, the high costs of childcare put him in a significant bind: He could either move out of the city and commute to the University, reducing the amount of time he is able to spend with students, or live paycheck to paycheck without savings.
In order to support his two sons and daughter, Folch initially chose to teach summer courses. This also meant, however, sacrificing valuable research time in academia’s most productive season.
“It destroys your entire summer research,” Folch said. “That research is compromised right when somebody's about to get tenure and immediately after. … The effect is to dampen productivity, in some of our best people at the best point of their lives.”
Further, because day cares, which typically end at 3 p.m., do not cover the full amount of time that faculty work at the University, Folch and his wife chose to alternate days of staying home, him teaching on one day and her going to the office on the other.
Some of the recommendations the PPC subcommittee have considered include a subsidized childcare center. Mumblings of this have been ongoing since the 2000s, with potential locations being in Uris and in Manhattanville, but plans for a day care on the Manhattanville campus have yet to materialize, and the release of last month’s Uris report included no mention of a day care facility.
Ideally, some members of the committee said that faculty currently seek up to $20,000 dollars in application-based grants, although they concede a multimillion dollar project would be unlikely, especially within the Arts and Sciences alone. But despite the high cost of what perfect solutions would look like, Folch believes they do not credibly deter action on childcare inaccessibility.
“The actual question I think needs to be what can really be done on a limited budget to alleviate some of the pain?” Folch said. “We don’t need to give everyone 20 grand per year for childcare to give more than three.”
In lieu of these benefits, Folch decided this year that he would have to move out of the city to New Jersey and seek relief from the cost of day care, even though this will mean further cutting down on the office hours he can provide for his students.
“Tomorrow I’ll be staying home again,” Folch said. “My poor graduate students and undergraduates don’t get to hear the most well-prepared lectures because I’m trying to squeeze in writing lectures and grading between taking care of three children.”
“It would be formally irrational not to look for employment elsewhere,” he added.
Molly Murray, English professor and another member of the PPC subcommittee, had her three-year-old son after she received tenure in 2012. When she first came to Columbia, Murray assumed childcare would be the least of her worries: Tompkins Hall, one of Columbia’s affiliated day cares, was on the first floor of her apartment building. She also knew the school advertised 12 affiliated centers, one of which was ran by Teachers College—a national leader in early education research.
But, when it came time to enroll her son in day care, this perception of a perfect system—or as Murray said “any system at all”—came crashing down. Thompson Hall’s full-week tuition is over $32,000 a year.
“Naïvely, before I had a kid, I thought, ‘there's a day care in the building, it’s so convenient!’” Murray said.
Instead, she had to find ways to supplement their income or cut down on their need for childcare.
Now, Murray pays $34,000 a year for her son’s full-time childcare at a different facility—something she can only afford by using a research stipend and sabbatical time, both intended to help faculty perform research freely. According to the PPC survey, 26 percent of respondents have done the same.
Murray said that there is no alternative for parents in New York other than to pay for expensive day care programs. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K initiative, which is still in its infancy, is only available in a select number of districts, and at a minimum only caters to children once they are three in certain districts.
“I think that if Columbia offered an alternative and you chose instead to send your kid to a very, very expensive day care, that would be fine,” Murray said. “But there is no alternative.”
Ultimately, she pointed to an “open secret” that exists at Columbia: In order to make ends meet with a family, you need a wealthy partner.
“If you’re going employ people in New York City, and they’re having kids, like, you have to kind of help them afford it,” Murray said. “There are all these kinds of ways that you get caught in a complicated situation and then realize, ‘Oh my God, I can’t really afford things.”
In order to escape childcare costs, Matthew Hart, English professor and incoming chair of the Junior Faculty Advisory Board, moved to Cold Spring, New York, a small town an hour and a half upstate. Initially, because of financial aid provided by a Columbia-affiliated day care, he only paid around $15,000 a year for childcare—an uncomfortable but “doable” amount that enabled him to live in Morningside Heights until his son was 11.
“I’ve swapped a five-minute walk from Philosophy Hall for an hour-and-a-half commute,” Hart said. “And that means I'm significantly less available to my students than I was when I lived just across from campus.”
Originally, Hart moved to the city with his son in 2011 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though he said he expected childcare in the city to be expensive, the allure of Columbia was overpowering. The first few years of day care were subsidized, but in the end, his family could not pay for more than the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. coverage of day care, and with his wife also working a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, Hart’s hours teaching were cut short.
“That period of time in the afternoon was a time when I couldn’t teach, couldn’t meet with students, couldn’t conduct research. And then my day would start again when [my son] went to bed,” Hart said.
After struggling with day care fees, which were only surpassed by his family’s monthly rent, Hart said he realized that his family could not afford the cost of living in New York City—he would have had to pay between $50,000 and $100,000 in private middle school costs for their son with special needs, given that local public schools had inadequate care. Citing complex scheduling around his own childcare, Hart said that the lack of resources places faculty—particularly junior and female faculty—at a disadvantage regarding their ability to perform their research and teach students.
“The question is how quickly can we move from the strong investment we’ve had recently in the construction of buildings toward investments in the human resources of the University. If the University decides to [invest] in its students, its faculty, its staff, then more can be done,” Hart said.
More significantly, Hart emphasized that in forcing faculty out of Morningside Heights, lack of childcare support challenges the intellectual campus community that has historically differentiated Columbia from its urban university peers.
“One of the peculiar things about life at Columbia is that you’re in this large diverse research institution in Morningside Heights, with some of the feel of a college town and intellectual community,” Hart said. “That is something that my inability to find adequate public education in New York City and my inability to afford private education have forced me to give up.”