Attracting Top-Tier Talent: The Case for Child Care in Academic Institutions

child care in higher ed

What is the impact on colleges and universities of not providing comprehensive child care supports? Multiple studies in recent years all point to the same conclusion: Academic institutions must become more family-friendly or risk being at a competitive disadvantage in the recruitment and retention of faculty and graduate students. Specific concerns include:

  • Underrepresentation of women among tenured faculty and senior administrators
  • Loss of young academic talent ' both men and women ' who choose to pursue careers in private industry because of perceived opportunities for faster advancement, higher salaries, and better quality of work/life integration
  • Competition to attract top undergraduate and graduate students, as well as post-doctoral fellows, who look to faculty for potential mentors and advisors
The majority of existing studies focus on faculty, with little attention to staff or student impacts. Moreover, the emphasis has been on the faculty's individual and collective outcomes, such as varying tenure achievement rates (based on their parental status) and utilization of family-friendly benefits, such as tenure clock stoppage or reduced duties. Little has been written about the institutional impacts resulting from a failure to address the work/life and child care needs of the entire campus community ' staff and students, as well as faculty. During the past two years, the Bright Horizons Consulting Practice has surveyed nearly 100,000 faculty, staff, and students at public and private universities to learn about the impact of child care in an academic setting. Our survey questions probed a variety of potential institutional impacts and asked respondents to quantify their experiences as much as possible. The aggregate responses present a profile of the qualitative and quantitative impacts on the educational institutions resulting from the child care challenges faced by faculty, staff, and students.

Loss of Talent

Colleges and universities are at risk of losing key contributors as these individuals start their families. Forty percent of faculty, staff, and students with young children reported they are considering seeking a position at another institution or outside of academia. Approximately one quarter of each constituency has seriously considered leaving their current institution due to child care concerns. Of survey respondents currently expecting a child, 12 percent indicated that they are not planning to return to work/school following the birth of their child. However, 88 percent of these respondents would return if campus child care were available. Given the predicted labor shortage and the higher percentage of undergraduate and graduate degrees earned by women, child care and work/life concerns will increasingly become a factor in recruiting new faculty and attracting graduate students. Moreover, as more institutions respond to child care concerns, the competition for talent will intensify at colleges and universities that do not offer these types of programs.

Reduced Productivity

Faculty, staff, and student respondents with young children reported that child care challenges impair their ability to concentrate, meet expectations, take on more responsibilities, and complete projects on time. A higher percentage of students reported difficulty with these areas of productivity compared with faculty and staff, with the lowest percentage of difficulty reported by staff. In addition to respondents' self-reports of loss of productivity, we found that 67 percent of parents have left early or arrived late to work/class an average of 10.5 times in a six-month period due to child care issues. Forty-two percent have missed work/school altogether due to their child care arrangement not being available an average of 3.6 times within a six-month timeframe. Survey respondents further illustrated their diminished productivity due to child care issues:

  • Sixty percent of responding faculty have cancelled office hours or student/faculty appointments.
  • Thirty-five percent of both faculty and graduate students have been unable to apply for a grant or participate in an externally funded study or have interrupted or suspended their work on a grant or research initiative.
  • Sixty percent of responding graduate students with young children have been unable to complete their degree as quickly as their ability would indicate, and 37 percent have considered ending their education before completion. These data points indicate a loss to the academic field in terms of having candidates to fill future positions.
  • Given the high cost of child care in many parts of the country, 40 percent of graduate students report taking on an additional job to pay for child care. This additional job takes time away from their studies, research, and/or sleep, which all impact on their overall ability to be productive and achieve their academic goals.
Bright Horizons survey data found that the same percentage of respondents from higher education institutions have children under 6 years of age as respondents from a wide variety of other industries. This indicates that faculty, staff, and students are no longer willing to put starting a family on hold. With women filling a growing percentage of positions at colleges and universities, the impact on productivity at educational institutions is likely to continue to grow unless the necessary child care supports are put into place.

Higher Stress Levels

The data also highlight the impact of stress on an academic population, as related to access to child care. Graduate students reported the highest stress levels that negatively affect their work/school assignments (80 percent), followed by faculty (70 percent), and then staff (59 percent). It is assumed that graduate students feel the most stress because they are often at a point in their lives where they are trying to prove themselves the most and have the fewest resources to support themselves and their families while doing so. Young faculty are also under pressure to earn tenure while juggling the demands of raising their family.

Diluted Culture

Parents trying to manage work/school responsibilities and personal responsibilities often have to forgo participation in important campus and departmental events. Their absence has a negative impact on the culture of their institutions. Survey respondents reported that they are missing opportunities to attend meetings or other university-related activities due to their child care responsibilities. Graduate students reported the highest percentage (77 percent) of missed opportunities, followed by faculty (73 percent), and staff (54 percent). A campus child care center addresses obvious and quantifiable challenges around recruitment, retention, absenteeism, and productivity. A campus child care center also facilitates relationships and networks among individuals who might not otherwise cross paths. It supports resilience and problem-solving among young parents juggling multiple roles. A campus child care center makes a powerful statement that a college or university is family-friendly and cares about its faculty, staff, and students' needs by providing them with the necessary supports to be successful. While a center alone will not address all of the work/life challenges faced by faculty, staff, and students, it demonstrates an investment by the institution in their futures. Finally, through their child care centers, colleges and universities live out a core commitment to the cultivation of new generations of students with a love of learning.

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

About the Author

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The Bright Horizons Blog Editor frequently posts on the real solutions that meaningfully support employees, advance careers, and drive the world’s leading brands. The Editor curates the latest news, trends, and challenges facing HR pros because your time is scarce. Follow the Bright Horizons Blog to receive this insight in your inbox.