When Audrey Trapolsi moved to Chapel Hill last summer, she was surprised to find Chapel Hill child care costs more than her monthly home mortgage did in Pennsylvania.
After relocating to Chapel Hill for warmer weather and a higher quality of life, Trapolsi and her husband decided to enroll their two daughters in Weaver Dairy Community Preschool.
Trapolsi loves the school. Dolls, piled on benches, lie near cubbies stacked with books, an aquarium and a classroom hamster. Sunshine floods through the windows, hitting the brightly colored walls and creating an inviting atmosphere where kids both learn and play.
However, colorful classrooms and high-quality child care come at a cost, and affording this level of child care in Chapel Hill can be challenging for young couples like Trapolsi and her husband.
During the 2016-17 school year, Weaver Dairy Community Preschool offers child care classes from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The monthly rate for these slots equates to more than $27,000 annually for a family with kids ages 2 and 4, the same ages as Trapolsi’s two daughters. A graduate of Teachers College of Columbia University, Trapolsi decided to become a teacher at Weaver Dairy Community Preschool partly to benefit from a tuition reduction for one of her children.
Child care providers across Chapel Hill find it difficult to keep tuition costs low as more expensive rent and increased care quality propel costs.
In the most commonly used care in Orange County, the median monthly fee for full-time care of a child under 3 years old is $1,225, or $14,700 per year, according to the Child Care Services Association, a Chapel Hill-based non-profit.
By comparison, the average annual costs of care for infants and 4-year-olds in North Carolina child care centers were $9,255 and $7,592, respectively in 2014, according to a 2015 report published by Child Care Aware of America, an organization working to advance affordability and accessibility of child care.
Quality care comes at a price
From 1985 to 2011, the average weekly child care expenses for families with working mothers, after adjusting for inflation, rose more than 70 percent nationally.
Anna Carter, president of the Child Care Services Association, said the increasing cost of child care is partly driven by the increasing quality of child care.
“The cost continues to increase because as programs are meeting higher qualities that cost more … we have seen those monthly rates go up continually,” she said. “Orange County has very high-quality programs.”
Since 1999, North Carolina child care centers have been rated on five-star scales by the North Carolina Division of Child Development (DCD). The rating evaluates a child care center’s staff education, program standards and compliance history, and it has pushed many child care centers to increase the quality and price of their services.
In Orange County, the average quality of child care centers for kids 3 years old and younger is 4.29 stars, and the average quality for preschoolers is 4.43.
In both Durham and Wake counties, the average quality of child care centers for both groups is under four stars.
Carter said families face a tough budgetary decision.
“It is certainly a challenge for families to be able to enroll children in these very expensive programs, but that’s also what children need to have access to,” she said. “It’s a dilemma for families.”
Garland Hattman, co-founder and director of the Weaver Dairy Community Preschool, said running a preschool is very expensive, as the school has to pay liability insurance, rent and taxes, among other costs. She said the school also needs to give teachers benefit packages to attract talent.
“We have a really nice package for our teachers.” she said. “Because of all those things, that makes the tuition really high.”
The nature of child care requires a high student-teacher ratio to give toddlers and children sufficient attention. In Weaver Dairy Community Preschool, the student-teacher ratio ranges from 4-to-1 for toddlers to 8-to-1 for preschoolers.
A North Carolina family of three needed to earn less than $40,177 per year to qualify for subsidy assistance for children 5 years old or younger in 2015, according to the North Carolina DCD. In fiscal year 2014-15, 274 infants and toddlers and 303 preschoolers in Orange County met this criteria.
In 2014, the North Carolina legislature changed the subsidy criteria, bringing the qualifying benchmark down by almost $2,000.
Carter said under the new rule, some families who previously met the eligibility criteria no longer qualify for subsidies.
“It just means ‘If I earn one dollar above that (eligibility standard), can I really afford to pay for child care?’” Carter said.
Hattman said the preschool has 34 children on any given day, and some additional children share slots and go to school on alternative days.
The center has four children who receive state subsidies and another three children who benefit from the school’s tuition reduction for staff.
“For a middle-class family, child care is very expensive. If you are employed and you don’t meet the criteria (to qualify subsidies), it’s going to be challenging,” Hattman said.
Alec Bethune, a parent of two children, has a 5-year-old son who for two years has been attending Spanish For Fun Academy, a Chapel Hill-based preschool emphasizing a bilingual environment.
Bethune’s cousin helps him take care of his daughter, who is 1 and a half years old and will start to go to a child care center soon.
Bethune said his family does not qualify for subsidies, but he finds child care in this area expensive.
“Both my wife and I are fortunate enough to have really good jobs, but it’s still really expensive to have two children in child care,” Bethune said. “It’s not an insignificant investment.”
Navigating the costs
Carter said affording child care can be particularly burdensome for young couples who are early in their careers and do not have large family incomes.
Trapolsi suspects that child care probably accounts for more than 20 percent of her family’s total income.
The annual costs of infant care, which is $9,255 in North Carolina, constitutes 17.3 percent of the median family income in the state, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think-tank whose mission focuses on working America.
Trapolsi said many of her friends face a similar dilemma.
“All of my friends who have kids, wherever you live — in Chapel Hill, in everywhere, back home, in Pennsylvania, in New Jersey — they are all struggling with the cost of child care,” Trapolsi said.
For some families, having more than one child means that one parent might be forced to quit working because of the high child care costs, Trapolsi said.
“I have friends who quit their jobs because basically their whole salary was going to child care,” she said.
“What’s the point of working? It was cheaper for them to lose an income and stay at home with their kids … especially when you have more than one kid,” Trapolsi said.