Graduate Student Parents Face Steep Costs, Social Isolation

In any given year, more than one in twenty graduate students in GSAS are also parents. Some are single parents, some are married to other Ph.D. students, and others have one, two, or three or more children. But they all face similar issues, ranging from healthcare and childcare costs to the social isolation that comes with being a student-parent.
By Luke A. Williams

Beginning in July, Lehman Hall will act as the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Student Center.
Beginning in July, Lehman Hall will act as the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Student Center. By MyeongSeo Kim

Forty-eight hours before the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences' first week of classes began, new Ph.D. student and active military member Timothy R. Bauler welcomed his first child at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Two days later, Bauler rode the train from MGH to Harvard Square, wandered around campus, entered multiple wrong buildings, and finally walked into his first class at GSAS — with spit up on his shirt.

But the trials of being both a graduate student and a parent often go much further beyond spit up-caused embarrassment.

In any given year, more than one in twenty graduate students in GSAS are also parents. Some are single parents, some are married to other Ph.D. students, and others have one, two, or three or more children. But they all face similar issues, ranging from healthcare and childcare costs to the social isolation that comes with being a student-parent.

As recently as 1995, Harvard had no significant financial or social policies in place specifically addressing the challenges student-parents face. Resources for student-parents were limited to daycare services, and the University was just starting to talk about maternity and paternity leaves, according to self-proclaimed scholar of GSAS student-parenthood Blakely B. O’Connor.

“You had your children and you just did it by yourself. There was nothing. You didn't expect that the graduate school was going to help you,” said Dean of Student Affairs Garth O. McCavana — a GSAS student-parent himself during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The lack of assistance prompted McCavana to create new student-parenthood policies and assistance at GSAS when he became dean of student affairs in 1995.

In 2012, GSAS started the Parental Accommodation and Financial Support program — what McCavana calls his defining success — a $6,516 gift to student-parents upon giving birth to or adopting a child to be used at the parent’s own discretion. Student-parents also receive a 12-week paid parental leave, dubbed a “parental accommodation,” along with the grant. McCavana said he hopes to extend the leave to a full semester in coming years.

Assistant Director of Student Services Jackie Yun said the goal of the program was to give recipients autonomy in choosing how to spend the funds.

“The idea is to let individuals have agency and let them make decisions for themselves that will best serve them,” Yun said.

But many student-parents still face issues every day — from spending much of their graduate stipend on healthcare costs to experiencing social isolation and stress. For many student-parents, parenthood is at once the most fulfilling and terrifying aspect of their lives.

On finding out she was pregnant during her first year at GSAS, O’Connor, who is a co-chair of Student-Parents Organization, said, “I was terrified. Absolutely terrified.”

“And it was really hard. It was not something that my husband and I had planned to do year one of my Ph.D. at Harvard — start a family. But we did. We did.”

‘Not A Lot Left' After Healthcare

Student-parent and international student Angélica Marquez Osuna put it bluntly: Parental Accommodation and Financial Support “was inadequate.” Even though it paid for one year of health insurance for her child, she wasn’t sure how she would afford insurance the next year.

Graduate students receive a stipend of approximately $36,000 before taxes, and many teach classes once they are eligible to earn more money. International students, however, are restricted in how much they can work — leaving some hard-pressed to support families.

As Osuna prepared for her general exams, she searched for a way to renew her child’s health insurance, which she said she found to be “almost impossible” to pay for. Unable to bear the financial burden, she sought advice from a Harvard financial adviser, who repeatedly told her loans would be the best option.

“I felt so sad when I was asking for money,” she said. “Then, with the support of my advisor, my mind changed.”

All eight student-parents interviewed said their professors and advisers have been the most helpful resource they’ve found at Harvard after becoming a parent. With the help of her adviser and Yun, Osuna abandoned the Harvard insurance plan and instead enrolled in Massachusetts State Health Connector, which on average decreases the cost of child health insurance by $1,500. In comparison, Harvard’s insurance plan costs $2,000 on average per semester.

GSAS administrators have said PAFS can serve as a resource for student-parents needing funding for health insurance or other costs associated with having a child.

“Supporting student parents is an important goal for GSAS and we work with individual students and with student leaders to assist and develop new programming,” wrote GSAS spokesperson Ann Hall.

Erin E. Williams, student-parent and active member of the military, receives healthcare and subsidized child care from her military benefits. She said she frequently sees other parents reduce their personal coverage to save money.

“But you don't want to do that to your kids,” Williams said. “They're too valuable to you. So that's where it becomes hard.”

SPO Co-Chair David A. Romney said he shared Osuna’s disappointment with the University’s lack of assistance with healthcare after parents use up PAFS funds. Romney and his wife took on debt to assist covering the cost of health insurance for their two children before his wife started working.

“Paying for my wife's insurance and for insurance for the two kids was, you know, $10,000 to $15,000 a year, which is...close to half of your stipend,” Romney said. “There's not a lot left after that.”

‘The Biggest Issue’

The financial burdens student-parents face extend well beyond just healthcare costs.

Though some student-parents are able to have their partner’s insurance plans cover their children, all must pay for child care. Each of the eight student-parents interviewed said child care in Boston costs between $2,000 and $2,500 per month.

“I know that child care often costs more than rent,” O’Connor said. “Boston is already one of the most expensive cities to live in, so if your child care is even one half times your rent, it makes it very difficult to manage your budget.”

Student-parent Kelsey Hanson-Woodruff called child care costs the “biggest issue” she has faced as a student.

“I’m paying more for child care than I get paid in my stipend,” Hanson-Woodruff said.

Harvard owns six child care facilities across campus. Many students said they opt for Boston-based centers instead because they are cheaper and closer to where they live.

Daycare aside, even the cost of single-night care or the use of baby sitters can get expensive. Romney said he regularly spends anywhere from $19-$22 an hour for child supervision.

GSAS recently started subsidizing online child care service “” for graduate students. Though several student-parents said they have found the program useful, they said it often serves more as an emergency resource because the school will only subsidize ten uses of the website per semester.

In contrast, Cornell’s Student Child-Care Grant Program allows student-parent families with an annual income of less than $120,000 to apply each year for $12,000 childcare grants, $1,000 of additional awards, and employment for a non-student unemployed spouse, according to Assistant Dean of Graduate Life at Cornell Janna S. Lamey.

While the Cornell grant program is application-based, Harvard provides funding and paid leave to all students who request a PAFS grant, according to Hall.

In 2018 the SPO leadership surveyed student-parents and found that more than 50 percent of respondents had ranked subsidized child care as “the most important family-related initiative that the university could undertake.”

They presented their findings to the GSAS administration and suggested the financial burden of child care could be alleviated by adding a bonus to student-parents’ stipends for each child.

Though the suggestion was “positively” received, the SPO never heard back from GSAS administration, according to Romney.

Hall declined to comment on the meeting.

Student-parents have also asked the graduate students union to address student-parent needs in the contract they are currently negotiating with the University.

Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers bargaining committee member Madeleine F. Jennewein wrote in an email that HGSU-UAW has supported the interests of student-parents since bargaining first started.

“The costs of having a family while also being a student are too high, and Harvard should do more to support student worker parents, both financially and with other forms of support,” Jennewein wrote. “Our union is calling for policies such as subsidies for childcare, guaranteed paid leaves, and dependent health insurance at no cost.”

Osuna said that when she lived in California with her husband who is also a graduate student, the union at his school — University of California, Santa Barbara — pushed the university to offer subsidized child care.

“[The UC’s] have a union, and that union is helpful,” she said. “If you’re an international student with a partner and you come to the university, they have a list of jobs your partner can take in the university… They also have fellowships specifically for student-parents. They also have a reduced rate for child care. It’s about $400 per month, and here it’s about $2,000.”

“There’s this cultural awareness about what’s going on when you’re a parent in the UC system that doesn’t exist here at Harvard,” she added.

'Kind of A Lone Wolf'

Though some student-parents manage to connect with other students facing similar issues and create a supportive network, others are not as lucky.

“Socially I'm kind of a lone wolf,” said student-parent and single mother Lisa A. Kostur. “I don't have anybody around me who has the same situation with the same responsibilities… I don’t have a mirror.”

Kostur said that she “buffers” her student and parent identities. While at school, she keeps her parenthood to herself, and while at home she tries not to bring up her work.

“I'm never being a student-parent. I'm either being a student, or a parent. That's how I do it. I can't do it any other way,” she said.

The lack of a formalized path or example to follow is a common struggle many student-parents said they face at GSAS.

“There are no institutional paths that you can follow,” Osuna said. “And as an international student of color that’s very complicated. I think that Harvard is about 60 years behind where it should be.”

Yun said GSAS purposefully allows students to decide how they will spend their PAFS funding because it allows student-parents to better suit their own needs.

The time associated with child care also means that student-parents rarely have time to participate in extracurricular groups or programming, often leaving them socially isolated.

Graduate student-parents’ days usually begin before 8 a.m., when they drop their children off at daycare. For many, 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. is reserved for schoolwork — made difficult by the fact that collaborative projects and office hours generally do not operate so early in the day. Then, when classes end at 6 p.m., student-parents often rush home to pick up children, make dinner, and put their kids to bed.

“I’d love to be involved in student activities, but I can’t,” Osuna said.

Romney said he struggled to balance his work as a graduate student with parenting responsibilities during his first year as a father.

“It was extremely mentally distracting,” he said. “I want to do research and there's this constant nagging in the back of my mind, like, you know, we're living from paycheck to paycheck, and I don't know exactly where we're going to find the money to pay for health insurance when it comes due.”

Under O’Connor’s direction, the Graduate Student Council and SPO have worked to create programming specifically for student-parents. Their most important event of the year is the GSAS Family’s Brunch, an event during orientation week focused on connecting student-parents and creating a support network.

The GSC and SPO have also worked to gather data on student-parents and their challenges — information they regularly present to GSAS deans and from which they formulate policy proposals.

Even now, the GSC is looking to perform an in-depth assessment of lactation rooms across campus — many of which have fallen into disarray and are only accessible via a cumbersome online reservation system. After the assessment, the GSC will discuss renovating the rooms and rebuilding the online system to make it easier to use.

Despite the help that faculty and groups like the GSC and SPO offer, many graduate student-parents maintain that the work of the University is not finished.

“If there is no awareness about healthcare, housing, childcare, about the families needing help, and international students having babies, I think that’s problematic,” Osuna said.

—Staff writer Luke A. Williams can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @LukeAWilliams22.

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