VANCOUVER, Wash. — Parents with young children in day care are taking a hit to their wallet as big as those putting young adult children through college.
A recent national report by New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C., found that the average annual cost of full-time, center-based child care — $9,589 per child 4 years and younger — now exceeds the average annual cost of in-state tuition.
The same is true in Clark County, Washington.
The median annual cost of child care at Clark County centers is highest for those with infants: $12,744. For toddlers, the median cost of one year of care is $10,716, and the median cost for preschool is $9,360 per year, according to data provided by Child Care Aware of Washington, a statewide organization that operates a database of licensed child care centers.
Compare that with one year of full-time, resident tuition at Washington State University Vancouver: $9,883.
“It’s simply amazing to me the cost of child care, as a parent looking at that,” said Lori Oberheide, assistant superintendent for communications at Educational Service District 112, which operates 29 child care centers in Clark County. “On the other hand, I can also see how expensive it is to run a child care center and cover costs.”
Educational Service District 112 runs the Clark County Child Care Consortium, a collection of centers serving 1,800 children, infant through grade-school age. For the centers, the largest expense is staff salaries and benefits, Oberheide said.
Other expenses include facility costs, utilities, furniture and meals; the centers supply breakfast, lunch and snacks. In addition, the centers need to purchase supplies and materials for curriculum and toys — things necessary to provide a high-quality care environment, said Jodi Wall, executive director for early care and education at the district.
In addition, the state has requirements on staffing, space, curriculum and more that must be met by licensed centers. Meeting those mandates comes at a cost, as well, Wall said.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into running a high-quality child care program,” she said. “In order to run a high-quality program, it’s expensive, and it’s expensive for families.”
For many local families, child care consumes a sizable amount of the household income.
Infant care in Clark County costs about 21 percent of the median family income, based on the median cost of care and median household income of $61,711. Toddler care is slightly less, at 17 percent, and preschool is equal to about 15 percent of the median household income, according to the Child Care Aware data.
Oftentimes, when people hear “child care,” they think of baby sitters, said Jane Lanigan, director of human development at Washington State University Vancouver. Instead, she said, they should consider the programs for what they truly are: early education.
“Thinking that a high-quality higher education experience should be any different in terms of costs than high-quality early education costs might be the wrong way to think about this,” Lanigan said. “Early education is learning.”
WSUV offers a preschool program, which costs $950 per month or $11,400 per year. Through student fees, however, WSUV has established scholarships for the program, Lanigan said.
The WSUV program not only offers a learning environment indoors but also an enriching outdoor space. That’s because research has shown that natural play scape areas help kids connect to nature, promote more vigorous physical activity and challenge their gross motor and decision making skills, Lanigan said.
Providing those kinds of environments, however, comes at a cost, she said. And unless the family is low income and receives state assistance for child care, the family is left to cover the cost of quality education, Lanigan said.
“I think the bigger question is, ‘Should parents be bearing 100 percent of those costs?”’ she said.
Tuition at WSUV has gone down; it’s 15 percent less than tuition in fall 2014. And the state is beginning to devote resources to early and primary education, such as investing in quality initiatives for early education and allocating funds for full-day kindergarten, Lanigan said.
But as the cost of early education rivals that of higher education, Lanigan and Wall want to see efforts to make high-quality early education affordable for all families.
“I think education at that point in the life span is absolutely as critical as education for emerging adults,” Lanigan said. “Does it concern me as far as access for quality education for everyone? Absolutely.”
“We need to figure out how to make education accessible across the entire lifespan,” she added.