Child Care or College Tuition: Which Family Expense Is Rising Faster?

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For many families, the costs of child care and college are obviously intertwined. Parents pay for the former so that they can work and save up enough—to help pay for the latter. It’s not news that the prices of both of these essential expenses are rising. But which is climbing the fastest?

According to the new report from Child Care Aware of America, “the cost of child care continues to increase while families struggle to afford quality care.” The agency released some alarming statistics (using 2011 numbers), such as:

*The average cost for center-based infant care exceeded $10,000 a year in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

*In 40 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost of infant care in a center exceeded 10 percent of the median household income for a two parent family.

*In three states (New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts), the average cost for center-based infant care exceeded 50 percent of the median income for a single mother family.

*Child care fees for two children (an infant and a 4-year-old) in a child care center exceeded annual median rent payments in every state.

*In 35 states plus D.C., the average annual cost for an infant in center-based care was higher than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college.

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All qualify as worrisome, disturbing factoids, for sure. Overall, however, the numbers show that child care costs don’t seem to be rising all that sharply—around 2% year over year for infant care. In fact, costs have decreased in certain states. Two years ago, the organization’s study stated that center-based infant care in Massachusetts averaged a whopping $18,750. In 2011, the same care cost under $15,000 per year in the Bay State.

Likewise, the 2010 edition of this study indicated that average annual costs for center-based infant care exceeded the costs of annual tuition and fees at a four-year state college in 40 states—more than the three dozen instances (35 states plus D.C.) where this situation is occurring lately.

Does this mean that child care is actually becoming more affordable? Well, no. In the post-recession era, incomes have declined as average cost of living expenses have risen, so the 2% rise in child care costs is often a lot more painful than it might sound. The larger takeaway is that even as child care prices are increasing, college costs are rising much faster, with some state universities hiking tuition by 40%, even 60% in recent years.

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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently highlighted the trend in which high school students are deciding not to go to college because it’s become so expensive, and they fear getting saddled with debts they can’t pay off. The refrain one high school guidance counselor hears from many students scared to embark on a college degree is this one: “I’m afraid to take on debt, because I see what my parents are going through.”

A story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, meanwhile, reflects on how parents are reacting to rising child care costs. In Minnesota, a year of state-college tuition is much cheaper than a year of having an infant in a child care center ($13,579). When median income is taken into consideration, Minnesota ranks as the second costliest state for child care centers.

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So what are parents doing to get by? Often, they’re cutting costs by resorting to cheaper care options, such as in-home (possibly even illegal and unlicensed) care services. This is so even though investigations have revealed that “serious safety violations and deaths occur more often with in-home care than with large child care centers,” according to the paper.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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