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Viewpoint: An argument for affordable dependent health care

photo of Justine
Jan 29 2020

One of the most pressing issues for graduate students at Stanford is the rising cost of dependent health care. Between 2013 and 2019, the monthly premium to insure a dependent spouse and two children increased by 80 percent, from $496/month to $893/month. Most graduate students’ stipends place a single student just above Santa Clara County’s limit for extremely low income housing; they place a student with three dependents at approximately 33 percent below the extremely low income limit.

The lack of resources for students with families places a heavier burden on women and contributes to gender inequality in the academy. While the issue affects people of all genders who wish to have families, it particularly affects those who bear children. Many students are in graduate school during their healthiest childbearing years and are forced to make decisions about whether to delay childbearing based on the resources available for dependent health care and child care. 

The cost of limited resources for families is reflected in the representation of women at Stanford. While women represent half of the undergraduate student body, they represent only 43% of graduate students. At more advanced levels of academia, women represent only 30 percent of the faculty at Stanford and only 46 percent of faculty nationwide.

The lack of resources for students with families places a heavier burden on women and contributes to gender inequality in the academy. Many students are in graduate school during their healthiest childbearing years and are forced to make decisions about whether to delay childbearing based on the resources available for dependent health care and child care. 

There are a number of factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women in the academy, but addressing structural barriers to access for scholars with families could offer some of the most straightforward solutions. Universities could provide free or highly subsidized child care and dependent health care for the children of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff, prorated by household income. 

Addressing barriers to advancement for parents might not seem as pressing as addressing the needs of other groups in the academy. Having children is, after all, a choice. But it is a choice for which women suffer more consequences than men. Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden found that men who have babies within the first five years of receiving their Ph.D. are 38 percent more likely than their women counterparts to achieve tenure. They also found that among men and women who get tenure-track jobs, men are more likely to have children after being hired for those jobs than women are.

In recent years, the University has taken important steps to address these barriers. Former Clayman Institute Voice and Influence fellow Tina Cheuk, who is currently Assistant Professor of Elementary Science Education at California Polytechnic State University, worked with administrators to create a Mothers in Academia network and a Student Family Working Advisory Group. Cheuk’s advocacy led the University to put forth its first lactation policy for students and postdoctoral scholars in 2018. Student activists also worked with the University to create a Graduate Family Grant program, which has been increased to a maximum award of $15,000 this year. While these developments are important steps, they are not enough. Prospective graduate students deciding whether to attend Stanford must know that they will not have to apply for grants to make sure their children have health care. Affordability for students with families is a critical issue affecting the diversity of our graduate community. Health care for all children on our campus must be guaranteed. 

The Stanford Solidarity Network and Stanford Student Parent Alliance are calling on Stanford to make dependent health care free for all graduate students’ children and for all graduate students’ spouses who are unable to work in the United States and receive health insurance from an employer (e.g students on F-2 visas). 

These steps would not only make Stanford more equitable, they also would increase the diversity and intellectual richness of our community.

Justine Modica is a Stanford PhD candidate in history and a graduate dissertation fellow at the Clayman Institute. This article grew out of her own feminist advocacy work around equity and student health care. 

 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.