Reenergizing early childhood care facilities in higher education

Nearly a quarter of the 17 million undergraduate students in the United States are students with children. However, affordable, on-campus childcare is still hard to find

Nearly a quarter of the 17 million undergraduate students in the United States are students with children. However, affordable, on-campus childcare is still hard to find. According to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (“IWPR”), although there is a growing demand for adequate early childhood education centers for students with children, only approximately 50 to 57 percent of two- and four-year public institutions and seven to nine percent of two- and four-year private institutions offer childcare facilities.

The history of childcare centers and facilities in higher education is extensive and the early expansion of these facilities across campuses can be attributed to World War II civil defense efforts that brought many centers to community colleges. These facilities witnessed another era of rapid growth during the late 60s to the early 80s, when they were established on many public four-year colleges and universities. However, many of these facilities are now reaching their useful lifespans and many campuses are seeking to address their aging facilities with renovations or new construction.

Traditionally, learning institutions have provided such services through an extension of academic services such as training laboratories for emerging student teachers, through student affairs as a division of student services, or through auxiliary services. Regardless of the department in which the center is housed, on-campus childcare facilities are generally subsidized for student parents. Funding for these programs comes from a variety of sources, including university general funds, student fees, private donations, state and federal funding, and government child care subsidies.

However, the Great Recession of 2008 and cuts from state-level funding have forced many public institutions to reevaluate how these programs are supported and look elsewhere for facility improvements or new construction expenditures support. Additionally, the current trends show that due to a lack of support, funding and ever-increasing costs have resulted in some institutions discontinuing childcare services.

Students with children range in age but, as IWPR identifies, the general demographics of these students are as likely to be working full-time while enrolled, less likely to have parents with a college degree, and more likely to come from lower-income families. Half of these students are single parents and half of them are married. Additionally, students with children are more likely than traditional students to be people of color, and approximately 71 percent of students with children are women. Community colleges have a much higher proportion of students with children than four-year institutions.

The political landscape for higher education continues to note this ever-increasing burden to students. Current presidential candidates in both parties highlight the desperate need for higher education reform. Current presidential candidate for the Democratic nomination Hillary Clinton has also expressed interest in increasing spending on the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program from approximately $15 million to $250 million, as reported by the Chronicle for Higher Education. Clinton proposed this in hopes of reducing the financial burden on students with children and supplying institutions with the appropriate funding to support these communities.

Because of these factors, it has become more imperative than ever to provide quality childcare facilities to this ever-growing constituent group through renovated or new childcare facilities.

Planning for Childcare Facilities

As we define the appropriate elements to be included in an early childhood education facility, it must be understood that childcare facilities can take on many forms―from stand-alone facilities on the edge of campus to attachments of larger structures such as student unions or academic facilities. It all depends on the facility’s mission, accessibility, and security requirements.
Childcare facilities can cater to a wide range of children from infants to pre-kindergarten. Depending on the age range and the program size, the facility can contain a number of spaces; however, the overall atmosphere of the facility should have a home-like quality, encourage autonomy, be secure, and be built with its target user in mind (i.e., furniture appropriate to the specific age group).

During the planning stages, concept development focus groups should be held to understand campus administration’s goals, program directors’ visions, the expected growth of the program (i.e., full-time / part-time staff, student teachers, and children), and the needs of student-parent users.

It is important to understand the long-term vision and programmatic needs of the facility. As stated previously, costs have continued to increase for institutions providing childcare services and the facility planning needs to be disciplined and focused to minimize the construction costs. In addition, while these projects can be relatively less expensive than other academic or student services facilities, ensuring all the pieces are in the right places can take just as long as any other facility type.

Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, California, recently completed construction of its new Child Development Center (“CDC”) in February of 2015. The approximately 9,000 square foot free-standing facility was more than a decade in the making, and was the result of a voter-approved bond measure in 2004. In addition, the completion of Cal State Fullerton’s (“CSUF”) new Children’s Center in 2013 had been in the works since 1996.

Cerritos’s CDC was a $6.1 million project that was funded through Measure CC bonds―a local facilities bond measure―and approved by voters in 2004. CSUF’s Children’s Center was an $8.4 million facility funded from a fee referendum approved by the student body in 1996 with fees collected since 1997. Even though funding for facilities like these can come from a variety of sources, the most common are state appropriations, voter-approved bond measures, and student body fees. Regardless of the funding source, if funds are not coming from an institution’s general fund, a thorough educational campaign should be undertaken to help educate voters on the widespread benefits of a childcare center, not just for students with children but for the campus community at large.

Childcare centers should stress quality care and child growth and development. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, these centers should provide well-lit active and passive activity areas that can accommodate a range of play and organized learning. Facilities should include: Child-friendly classrooms, community spaces for children and adults, child-friendly and adult restrooms, outdoor and indoor play areas, staff office spaces, meeting rooms for adults, foodservice space, and storage space.

The Cerritos CDC is comprised of a modular building with administrative and staff offices, classrooms, a small prep kitchen, and a restroom. The facility is broken into two separate sections and supports a program of 125 students aged two to five. The first section contains most of the administrative office space, a conference room, restroom, sickroom, storage, and a prep kitchen. The second section contains two large divisible classrooms and a staff wing for staff and student-teacher documentation.

While students are generally separated by age group in the earlier part of the day, groups are integrated in the afternoon. “We found that children in the two- and three-year-old group would become more active once they joined the older group, usually because their older sibling was with them,” said CDC Director Debra Ward. Outdoor spaces were enhanced with a nearly 32,000 square foot playground that pulls its inspiration from the Southern California landscape.

CSUF’s Children’s Center was built with the expectation of future expansion and growth and enough room on the current site to build an additional two buildings. The facility is currently comprised of three buildings containing three infant classrooms, three toddler classrooms, and four pre-school classrooms. In addition, the facility was built with a small library and administrative offices. Built to service 177 children, the facility also supports a robust staffing program of 13 professional staff, 83 student assistants, and 50 interns.

Selection of a childcare facility site should be based on several factors, including the need for it to be at the core of campus, whether or not it should be easily accessible to the external campus community, and how security and safety concerns will be addressed. Cerritos’s CDC, for example, is located on the campus periphery with a drop-off parking lot that allows easy access while maintaining the required controlled access and security for children, staff, and parents.

Overall, the focus of planning for a childcare center should include the initial feasibility study and detailed programming. The ever-increasing demand for childcare facilities and slow decline of their supply is forcing institutions to rethink the necessary priorities for student services. It is important for institutions to continue serving at-risk student populations by providing all the necessary tools needed for them to be successful. On-campus childcare services can be a tremendous benefit to the institution’s recruitment and retention efforts. By providing adequate childcare services for students with children, institutions are helping their communities complete post-secondary degrees and improve their quality of life, and helping instill the importance of higher education in their children.

Austin Metoyer
Austin Metoyer is the Research & Policy Manager for the Downtown Long Beach Associates in Long Beach, California. He previously served as Project Analyst at Brailsford & Dunlavey in Washington DC.

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