COLUMBIA — MU's Student Parent Center is housed on the ground floor of an apartment building in University Village. Since the 1970s, the center has offered flexible scheduling and a variety of services and resources to student parents.
But director Julie Shea is worried about the future and how to maintain affordable, quality child care for student parents. The center is running in the red about $30,000, down from $38,000 the previous year.
“Yes, we are operating at a deficit," Shea said. "But we are offering a lot of services, a lot of information. I’m providing services and resources to many more people than what we have here. We are a strong resource for the university, and we could be utilized in a much larger way.”
Shea is working with Student Auxiliary Services to reduce the debt by half in the next year. A fee increase would help the center achieve this goal, but Shea sees this as a last resort, if that.
Fees vary depending on the child’s age, as well as full- or part-time enrollment. Right now, enrolling a toddler or infant in full-time day care would cost a parent $40 per day, or $200 a week, and preschoolers would cost $30 per day, or $150 a week.
Part-time enrollment allows student parents flexibility but is more expensive on a daily basis, at $45 for infants and toddlers and $35 for preschoolers. The cost is per child, whether or not multiple children are enrolled at the center, and discounts are offered only through a free-and-reduced-meal program based on the family income.
“We’re at the community average," Shea said of the fees. "If we want to maintain our mission as a service to the students, then we need to maintain our fees as low as possible. For as long as I've been here, that’s always been the mission: to offer flexible, affordable, quality child care to student parents.”
Trying to cope with costs
The center operates on a little more than $300,000 annually including parent and university fees and reimbursements from a state food program, as well as $37,000 from the university’s general operating fund. About 80 percent of the center’s total income pays for staff, and the remaining 20 percent pays for office supplies, rent and whatever else the center might need, Shea said. Included in the 20 percent is almost $11,000 to MU for institutional support and $15,000 to MU for rent.
“Really one of our main concerns is operating costs,” said Michelle Froese, public relations manager for Student Auxiliary Services. “As operating costs increase, it’s hard to make our fees competitive. It’s definitely not a money-making venture by any means, but I don’t think it was ever meant to be.”
Another way to increase income would be to increase the number of child-care slots available.
The center can hold up to 44 children, but Shea tries to keep the number lower for quality control. Because the center offers flexible scheduling to fit student parent’s needs and utilizes student employees to keep wages lower, there are a lot of transitions throughout the day, Shea said.
“The administration is really pushing to fill the center to make that money,” Shea said. “But it’s hard to have a classroom at maximum capacity and maintain a quality environment when you have so many transitions in children and staff.”
MU has not raised the fees for winter, but Shea said she doesn’t think that will last.
“I imagine at some point there will be a fee increase," she said. "None of the full-time staff have had pay increases going on three years. Once they lift that, unless we have more university support, the only way the center will be able to compensate wage adjustments will be to increase fees.”
Shea also said she sees the center as less of a business and more of a nonprofit.
“When the center was first started, we were operated under minority services," she said. "It was really meant to be a service-type program that supported student parents and allowed parenting students to continue their education. And at some point it really changed direction.”
Center's history at MU
Naomi Clark, a doctoral student and president of student-parent organization MizFIT, has been researching how the center’s mission and MU’s support have changed over the years.
In 1975, the Student Parent Center opened at full capacity with little support from campus administration.
“The Missouri Student Association donated $7,000 to get started,” Clark said. “MU administration didn’t want to be involved in ‘welfare.’”
In the 1985, the center was “cut from the MSA budget on the grounds that too few students were served,” Clark said. Since the 1980s, the center has been viewed from the business model perspective and is considered part of Student Auxiliary Services.
“That’s how they’re measuring success, by the ultimate profitability," Clark said. "What that suggests to me is that by adopting a business model, the center becomes divorced from its original purpose of serving student parents.”
Determining campus need
A major obstacle the center faces is the lack of hard numbers. No study has ever been conducted to determine how many student parents are enrolled at MU.
“There’s lots of national data and circumstantial evidence the university has been slow to investigate,” Clark said. “The SPC has never been at a loss for clients. If Mizzou is consistent with the rest of the nation, there would be 8,000 student parents here.”
Shea is creating an internship for next semester to study the number of student parents at MU, as well as look for funding opportunities.
“We’re not going to say the sky is falling if we don’t have any hard evidence,” Clark said. “If we don’t have numbers, nobody is going to listen to us.”
A task force also has been established to look into how family-friendly MU is.
“The goal is to be very supportive of our families, to help facilitate attendance to school and be sensitive to a wide range of needs,” said Anne Deaton, professor in human development and family studies and co-chairwoman of the task force.
The report won’t be available until early or mid-January, but Deaton said the task force will recommend creating a standing committee to “look at a wide range of issues,” including student parent issues.
“At this point I can only speak in generalizations,” Deaton said. “One of the big things that came out was we have so many resources, but we need a hub to focus and raise awareness about them. One of the recommendations is to really ramp up our communication to students, faculty and staff about the resources we have.”
"There might be areas to study to flesh out the needs," Deaton said, "but the next standing committee would have that opportunity.”
Until a study is done, however, the center must continue to look for ways to cut costs and increase income, using the resources it has.
“I don’t think we can expand or decrease the number of child-care slots or even think of expanding to another facility until we know what the need is," Froese said. "As university budgets continue to tighten we have to look at ways we can best utilize our resources.”