Leave policies for married Notre Dame graduate students impede balancing study and family life

Students for Life of America published a study on September 14, 2015, of the schools that provide the best care for pregnant students. Notre Dame placed fifth among schools such as Belmont Abbey College and Saint Louis University. According to this study, Notre Dame provides solid support for pregnant students, which primarily includes undergraduates. Does this support extend to graduate students with families?

As a Catholic institution, Notre Dame’s mission is to “encourage a way of living consonant with a Christian community and manifest in prayer, liturgy, and service.” Current and former graduate students, however, have found that areas of Notre Dame’s policies for student-family support, such as health care and child care, are in need of improvement.

One current law student told the Rover, “Notre Dame has been in general a welcoming place for me as a graduate student with a wife and a son. … In spite of these advantages, there is still much room for improvement. For example, purchasing health insurance is incredibly expensive for students’ spouses, almost double [what] a student has to pay for the same insurance.”

In this student’s opinion, Notre Dame could do more to facilitate the balance between raising a family and graduate studies. Until the Obama administration’s Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, some domestic and international student families were uninsured due to Notre Dame’s expensive health insurance. Health care is now mainly unattainable for international students, so the concern over the unavailability of health insurance persists.

One graduate student told the Rover that his wife “was uninsured for some time. … We could not afford [Notre Dame’s] insurance for our family on a graduate student stipend.”

What are some of these policies that affect graduate students who are pregnant and/or raising families? For graduate students who are first-time parents, Notre Dame has a university “accommodation” policy that allots students 16 weeks to adjust to parenthood.

One young graduate student who is a first-time mother was concerned due to a lack of clarity in the accommodation policy. “When I took the semester off, I was not relieved of service to the department,” she said. “As far as I know, the university does not allow for a shift to part-time status for the first two years after a child is born.”

These new parents maintain their standing as students during the semester they take off, which can therefore deplete their funding. All of the deadlines and reduced work are pushed back for the student to finish later, but graduate students have only five years of funding from the university. Young parents seeking graduate degrees who use the “accommodation” policy are then at a disadvantage compared with other students.

Partly funded by Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College, the nonprofit Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) provides education and early care for children two years old through kindergarten during the academic year, and ages two-and-a-half to nine during the summer months.

This same graduate-student mother finds that since the ECDC only accepts children who are at least two years old, this “makes it difficult to find childcare support” for children under two years old “at affordable rates and within [a] reasonable distance from the university.”

Some graduate students resort to federal welfare programs in order to make ends meet. The Special Supplemental Food and Nutrition Education for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) helps low-income women, children, and infants receive coverage. WIC is overseen by the Indiana State Department of Health and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The university does provide “spouse IDs” that allow the spouses of graduate students to access on-campus facilities like the dining halls. For the law student mentioned earlier, “the University Village (on-campus housing for grad students with [families]) has been a great place for us because of the community and the facilities.”

Yet this same student said, “[T]here is no available day care services for students, the one available in the university is mainly for faculty, there is a huge waiting list, and [it] is very expensive.”

Also of concern is the fact that women are underrepresented in graduate degree programs, often because it is difficult to balance work and family life. Other universities have addressed this concern. The University of California-Berkeley, a secular university, provides paid family leave for at most a semester for new parents, low-cost child care for children ages one and older, and paid health insurance.

A Notre Dame graduate student and his wife, who had their first child while at an Ivy League institution, appreciated that the institution had “great supports for students with families, like subsidized health insurance for spouses.”

UC-Berkeley and some Ivies have implemented these policies to encourage more women to enter their graduate programs. At Notre Dame, however, the ratio of men to women in the theology Ph.D. program, which is the largest graduate degree program, is still 3:1. The ratio of men to women in the philosophy department is similarly low at 71:14. Both departments are integral parts of a Catholic university, making the underrepresentation of women in these departments at Notre Dame concerning.

One current graduate student remarked that “women choose simply not to apply to doctoral programs because the competition between work and family life is so difficult. This perpetrates the male domination of faculties at ND and other universities. … As a Catholic institution, [Notre Dame] should be even more supportive of family life.”

According to these graduate students, Notre Dame is called as a Catholic university to double its efforts to support graduate students with families. Family life, after all, should come first, as Saint Pope John Paul II states in his encyclical Laborem Excercens: “The economy must serve people, not the other way around.” According to several of the university’s own students, Notre Dame could be doing more to ensure that graduate students have the available resources to dedicate time to their studies and, above all, to their families.

Sarah Ortiz is a freshman studying the Program of Liberal Studies and living in Lewis Hall.  She is often told that she looks like Snow White. She can be reached at sortiz2@nd.edu.