Steve Varnum

In 30 states, child care costs more than college

By Steve Varnum

In 30 states, child care costs more than tuition and fees at their four-year state colleges.

In 30 states, child care costs more than tuition and fees at their four-year state colleges.The annual cost of child care in 30 states is higher than tuition and fees at their four-year state colleges, according to a study released in December by Child Care Aware.

That finding is stunning for a couple reasons. First is that many families consider college a major expense, and start saving for it when their children are very young. Our family began saving for my daughter's college when she was barely out of preschool.

Graphis showing comparitive cost of child careThe second is that brain research and social science research agree that children's earliest years are the most important, educationally, in their lives.

New Hampshire was not one of the 30 states in which center-based child care costs more than college. That isn't because child care is more affordable here. N.H. ranks close to the middle of the pack for affordability of care for infants and toddlers, but tuition and fees at our public colleges are the nation's highest.

The cost of child care squeezes family finances when young parents can least afford it, as many are starting careers (and while some are still paying off their own college debt). It is often the second-highest cost in a family's budget, after housing.

Unlike college, few parents have tucked away money for their child's early education. And unlike college, there are few scholarship and financial aid options, except for very-low-income families. Our culture considers child care and early education the parents' responsibility.

So why is child care so expensive, especially compared to colleges?

It's not because of wages and salaries. Child care is one of the lowest-earning professions in the country. Many teachers get poverty-level wages with few, if any, benefits.

The answer is that it's a tough business to operate. Regulations covering health, safety, staffing ratios and educational requirements keep young children safe, but also drive up costs. Profit margins are razor thin, to the point where many centers need to care for the maximum allowed number of children just to break even.

Our Child Care Facilities program helps child care providers understand how to best control their business costs and keep quality care affordable to parents. Our current Business of Child Care initiative is providing group and customized training to the directors of nine North Country centers. They are generally good businesspeople already they have to be.

A combination of private and public support keep college accessible for most working families. How can we, in our own communities, in our own New Hampshire way, make these most-important learning years affordable to our working families? What ideas do you have?

Steve Varnum is Director of Communications and Marketing at the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund.