Being a grad student with a family at Cornell can be an immense struggle, given the high cost of childcare and dependent healthcare the university provides. The cost of healthcare for a spouse is $2,560 per year. The cost for children is $2,560 for one child, or $5,120 for two or more children. A surprising number of grad students with children we’ve spoken to simply opt for Medicaid since they can’t afford the dependent healthcare; if they’re not a U.S. citizen, then Medicaid isn’t even an option. This propagates a system in which Cornell, making a revenue of $4.3 billion dollars per year, relies on federal assistance to pay for its graduate employees’ dependent healthcare. Not only that, but the maximum amount of childcare assistance a grad family can receive is only $5,000 per year, when the average cost of childcare at Cornell is $15,000 per child. This places a huge financial burden on grad student families who are making significant contributions to Cornell’s core mission.
It costs between $15k and $20k per child per year for childcare in Ithaca, meaning that if a grad student has two children under the age of 5, the total childcare cost would be $30k-$40k for the year. Cornell’s Childcare Center (most convenient for grads) is also one of the most expensive in town. Ithaca was recently listed as #8/10 most expensive cities to raise a family, even ranking above San Francisco. This is a recent report by Economic Policy Institute that details a general trend in US of un-affordability of high quality childcare.
Childcare subsidies at Cornell have increased slightly since 2012. In 2010, the maximum amount a grad family could receive towards childcare was $1,500, with a huge gap between grad and faculty subsidies. In 2012, the maximum amount increased to $5,000. While this has been a great improvement, these subsidies are still not high enough, especially if the graduate student family unit depends on the income of a graduate student. Most recently, Cornell has increased the allocation of funds towards childcare from $100,000 to $250,000. This sounds great on paper, however this doesn’t help individual grad families since the maximum grant allowed per family still remains $5,000 and the financial cap has not been raised.
Additionally, these subsidies cannot be used for informal home care. The structure of homecare is hit or miss, but larger childcare institutions are out of financial reach for most graduate students. This has led some students to search for the cheapest care available, putting students in a difficult position where they have to sacrifice quality of care for the sake of affordability.
With a union contract, Cornell could follow the lead of other universities, which have average childcare costs of about $2.25 per hour, 40 hours a week, for about $360 per month.
Maternal/Parental leave benefits
Cornell University provides accommodation for childbirth, newborn care, adoption, foster care, and acute child health care to enrolled students who are in good academic standing. Currently, Cornell’s parental leave policy provides the option of either 6 weeks of paid accommodation (for students receiving full funding from the university as assistants–whether as TAs, GRAs, RAs or GAs; fellows; or trainees) or up to two semesters of reduced load status to serve their needs surrounding childbirth, adoption, newborn care, foster care, and acute child health care. The biggest problem is that cornell counts leave even if it occurs during university breaks. So, if someone has a baby in early December, by the time the semester starts, they will have used up most of their paid leave.
In response to the unionization effort at Harvard, they increased maternity leave from 6 weeks to 12 weeks and increased the stipend for childcare from $3,100 to $6,200. With a union, these types of benefits can be guaranteed in a contract.
Transportation can be difficult for parent grad students, especially if using childcare far from campus (outside of Ithaca is less expensive). Parking passes closer to central campus would be useful for parents, prioritize access to these lots, or even subsidize parking passes.
Some mothers have also expressed difficulty in how they were treated by faculty after becoming a mother. There’s a lack of understanding of needs of new mothers, such as the need to step out of a seminar to pump milk. Mothers have also expressed a feeling of less respect by faculty. A union could protect the rights of mothers, provide rooms to pump milk, ensure changing tables for children, etc.