Child care or college?

Child care or college?

Thinking of starting a college fund for your new baby?

You may want to endow a child care fund first.

A recent study found that in 40 states, full-time infant care at a child care center costs more than annual tuition and fees at a four-year public college. Illinois was among the 10 least affordable states, with the average cost of infant care at $11,353 a year, up 3 percent over 2009.

Champaign County’s average is about the same, at $11,284 — less than the University of Illinois’ base tuition and fees of $13,658 a year, but more than Eastern Illinois University’s $9,986.50.

The study by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies found that costs are rising, and fast — twice as fast as the median income of families with children, and in many states faster than the rate of inflation.

In every region of the United States, average fees for infants at a child care center exceeded the average amount families spent on food. And in 24 states, including Illinois, the amount was more than average annual rent.

Locally, rates have increased steadily year by year, says Brenda Eastham, director of the UI Child Care Resource Service, which connects parents with child care in six area counties. Costs are cheaper for toddlers and older children but still average $8,456 a year for 3-year-olds in Champaign County.

None of this is news to any parent who’s had to pay for even part-time care. But the recession has exacerbated the problem.

Champaign-Urbana’s child care providers say they’re seeing more vacancies, and some have even had to close classrooms. At the Early Learning Center in Champaign, the number of toddlers and 2-year-olds dropped from 25 to 15 this year, and Director Jill Moore ended up combining a couple of rooms. She’s also seen more requests for  part-time care.

“Parents are either out of work and not needing child care, or if their hours are reduced or they’re just having to look at places to cut back and save a little bit, they’re looking for less expensive options,” says Beverley Baker, director of community impact for United Way of Champaign County.

The Illinois Department of Human Services does provide generous child care subsidies for low-income parents who are working or going to school. For the most part, anyone who qualifies can get assistance — the state has no waiting lists, Eastham says. Her agency processes subsidies for about 4,000 families in this region, a number that’s stayed fairly constant. But the program can be complicated, and the subsidy is only open to families earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level — $2,429 a month for a family of two, $3,052 for a family of three.

For Julie Lowry, that poses a problem. She is her family’s chief breadwinner, working full-time as a branch administrator for a financial company while her husband attends the UI full-time. Their 2-year-old daughter is in full-time care at Kids First in Champaign.

They qualify for a state subsidy, but if she works any overtime, it temporarily pushes their income above the limit. This summer, they were ineligible for two months, which meant they had to pay Kids First the full $210 a week instead of their co-payment of about $80.

“That’s a huge difference in our budget,” she says. Fortunately, Kids First allowed them to pay the difference over time, and they’ve scrimped and saved to make do.

There are cheaper day care centers, but Lowry and her husband say Kids First is their best option because it’s just around the corner. The center also hasn’t raised prices in two years.

“People cannot afford to pay more than they already are,” says Director Nicole Plowick, a former elementary school teacher.

Prices may be high, but they often don’t cover the rising cost of care, including utilities, insurance and food, Baker says. Centers are caught between charging enough to pay their program costs and keeping prices reasonable.

For parents who don’t qualify for subsidies, some centers have sliding-fee scales — but not many, Eastham says.

Families who’ve dropped out of child care centers are choosing less formal arrangements — using a cheaper in-home day care or piecing together care with friends and relatives, Baker says. In Champaign County, for example, the cost of in-home infant care averages about $6,500 a year, much less than a center.

But that raises questions about the quality of care those kids are getting, and whether they’ll be prepared for school once kindergarten rolls around, Baker says. While there are plenty of high-quality home-based child cares, she says, “sometimes less-expensive care is less quality, where kids are in front of the TV. There’s not a stimulating environment, not developmentally appropriate activities.”

Baker is quick to say parents have to make the best choices for their own family. And there’s nothing wrong with keeping a toddler at home or at a sitter’s.

The key is “quality early learning experiences,” whether it’s at home with mom and dad, with a grandparent or friend, with a part-time nanny or child care center. The first three years of life are critical to a child’s success, she says.

To make quality child care more affordable, the study recommends the state and federal government boost investment in child care subsidies and quality-improvement efforts; reduce barriers that keep families from using subsidy programs; and improve tax credits and deductions for families.

In Illinois, the state is raising the reimbursement rate in January. And the Child Care Resource Service advertises the subsidy program extensively through schools, community meetings, hospitals, clinics, Realtors and the public aid office, Eastham says.

Julie Lowry hadn’t planned to have a baby now — and in fact had tried for 10 years before her husband went back to school — but it was a happy surprise. It just made their decision a bit of a struggle financially.

She’s not sure what will happen when her husband graduates in May and they may no longer qualify for a subsidy. But she worries more about single parents and others “who don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. They don’t see it getting better.”'

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You can reach News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or on Twitter.com/jawurth.

Photo: Jaysen Paschal and Samantha Lowry play with bubbles last week at Kids First child care in Champaign. Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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