During her first year of social work graduate school at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), Mari Lares was on the road a lot.
After working an eight-hour day as a case manager for Child Protective Services, she picked up her two young children, 5-year-old Eliana and 4-year-old Jesus, from daycare on the southeast side of San Antonio. She then drove them 30 minutes northwest to Helotes so her mother could watch them while she went to class — every night until 9 p.m. at the university’s downtown campus.
After class, she drove back to her mom’s house to get the kids, then home to San Antonio. Often, they wouldn’t get home until close to 10 p.m.
“There were days where I would consider whether the struggle was worth it,” said the 26-year-old single mom. Between the stress of her job and the trips back and forth between work, school and her mother’s house, Lares was exhausted. Her grades suffered. “I had to miss class a couple times, but luckily I didn’t have to drop,” she said. “ At that time I felt like I had to choose my children over school.”
UTSA’s downtown campus doesn’t have child care services, and the child care centers near campus all closed at or around 5 p.m., or cost too much for Lares to afford. She said she had no other choice than to drive her kids to her mom’s.
Nationally, 4.8 million college students are also parents. While UTSA doesn’t track how many of its students have children, Lares says that in each of her 20-person classes, at least three or four of her fellow students are parents, and many are forced to bring their kids to class.
Now, a group of social work graduate students has planned a series of child care rallies and are soliciting signatures for a petition they’ll soon deliver to university officials.
It all started last spring, when Bianca Ramirez — a UTSA student single mom — began noticing more and more students bringing their children to campus, to classes or the library. “They were really stressed out because they didn’t have anywhere to take them,” Ramirez said.
Unlike the downtown campus, UTSA’s main campus, located in northwest San Antonio where about 93 percent of UTSA’s student body attends class, has a child care center for students, staff and faculty. Yet the downtown campus mainly serves graduate and doctoral students — many of whom are parents, commuters, or who work full-time jobs. Even when downtown students utilize the main campus’ day care center, it closes at 5:30 p.m., Ramirez said, which doesn’t help students who work all day and then go to class at night.
“We’re paying the same tuition as [students who attend class at the main campus], and there are a lot of universities in Texas that have child care on their campuses,” Ramirez said. “It’s not something that’s impossible to do.”
Ramirez and several other social work students are planning two “We Matter Too” rallies — one on Wednesday at the main campus and one February 10 downtown — to call attention to their child care needs before presenting university officials with their 800-signature petition. Ramirez said she met with administrators twice last fall, but after they brushed her off, she doubled down on her efforts and decided to start a public campaign.
In an emailed statement to the Observer, UTSA officials say they are aware of the student-led movement and petition but that they can do little to change things right now.
“Unfortunately, space constraints prevent the creation of a downtown facility at this time,” wrote communications officer Joe Izbrand. “We welcome the opportunity to continue discussions with our students on this important matter.”
Child care on college or university campuses is becoming more rare, despite growth in the number of student parents. According to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), the proportion of four-year universities that offered on-site child care dropped from 54 percent in 2002 to 51 percent in 2013, while the number of students who have children grew by 1.6 million from 1995 to 2011. And despite that growth, federal funding for campus child care has also stagnated.
Six Texas colleges or universities currently receive a total of $1.3 million in federal funding for on-campus child care.
Dani Salinas, a 27-year-old graduate student at UTSA who’s joined the effort to bring child care downtown, has struggled with care for her son Tristan since she had him as an undergraduate at 19. At one point, said she she had to drop out of school because she couldn’t find anywhere to take him. Tristan is now old enough for an after-school program, but, she said, she did have to take him to class with her in the past.
“I don’t want another mother to be scared to sign up for classes because she doesn’t know where to put her child,” she said. “That’s not something that should be a factor when it comes to bettering your life and your situation.”
For many parents, including student-parents, the cost of child care is a persistent struggle. Across the United States, the cost of child care is increasing, and in Texas, a single parent pays an average of 66 percent of their income to send two children to a child care center, according to an analysis by Child Care Aware America. And the average annual cost of sending an infant to a child care center can be as high as $8,700 in Texas, just $100 less than the average annual cost of full-time tuition at a public university.
Though Salinas wants to have another child, the expense of child care keeps her from growing her family.
“My child is asking almost weekly for a brother or sister,” she said. “It’s so hard to explain to him that I can’t have another child because I can’t put that child in daycare.”Ramirez and her classmates vow to continue their fight until UTSA expands child care services to their campus. Ramirez said she also plans to make a direct appeal to UTSA’s President Ricardo Romo.
“I know how difficult it is to struggle when you’re a parent and you’re having to balance school obligations, work and family,” she said. “The more that we help students that are parents to graduate, it’ll not only help society and the economy, it’ll help families.”
Now in her third year of her graduate program, Lares is pregnant with her third child. Eliana and Jesus are in school, and her boyfriend helps her with pickups and dropoffs. But, Lares said, he works full time, and she can’t expect him to pick up and drop off the new baby, too. Lares hopes that by the time she delivers later this summer, UTSA officials will have launched child care services downtown.