What Higher Ed’s Paid Parental-Leave Policies Look Like

As a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, Claire B. Guth took her comprehensive exams when she was 38 weeks pregnant. She didn’t ask about postponing them because she didn’t think that was an option. Already worried that she was lagging behind her peers, she feared that a delay would mean she wouldn’t be able to finish her degree on time or be competitive in the job market.

After giving birth, she wasn’t out for long. In June 2022 when Casey, her son, was just three weeks old, Guth returned to work because another school at Pitt asked her to help out with a project. Leaders there knew Guth had just given birth, she said, but she didn’t want to risk burning bridges or missing out on a promising professional opportunity by saying no.

“I didn’t think that there were any other options,” Guth said. “I thought, When your boss tells you to do something, you just do it. That’s the kind of culture that universities support.”

Guth doesn’t hold any ill will toward Pitt, but she suspected her experience was emblematic of systemic issues in higher ed. In an attempt to quantify those issues, Guth, who left Pitt’s public-policy program in December 2022 because of parental-leave obstacles, began collecting data, first on Pitt’s policies for faculty and staff members and graduate students, and then on other institutions. She has now collected family-leave policies for all three populations at 142 institutions, and charted them in a research project she calls LaborED. (Pitt did not return a request for comment.)

Her data illuminates larger questions about equity in parental-leave policies, both within each group — paid leave for faculty members, for example, can range from just two weeks to as many as 32 weeks — and between them. Her findings confirm that more-generous leave times are often afforded to faculty members, which can perpetuate the faculty-staff divide, and her work has begun to inform the wave of faculty, staff, and graduate-student activism and unionization efforts hitting higher ed, in which child-care and parent-friendly policies have been top of mind. In a tight labor market, Guth said, robust paid-leave policies could give institutions an edge in the competition for talent.

As it is, Guth said, institutions’ parental-leave policies contain “some pretty stark realities.” Many of them come with loopholes that put the onus on employees to use their paid time off, or PTO, to make their leaves possible, she said. For instance, at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, faculty members are eligible for 12 weeks of paid parental leave — but they must first exhaust their sick days, PTO allowance, and holidays toward that time. The university will then supplement those days with more to reach a total of 12 weeks’ leave. Because the 12 weeks aren’t automatically granted to faculty members, Guth categorized UMBC — and other institutions with similar policies — as having zero weeks of paid leave.

“That’s confusing for faculty who are new or who don’t know about the informal policies to navigate through,” said Guth, who is now a director of continuing education at Pennsylvania State University at New Kensington. “If universities are trying to recruit and retain a work force, they need to come out with what their policies are and have more clear, consistent HR guidelines for parental leave.”

Angela Paik Schaeffer, a spokesperson for UMBC, said that its paid-leave policy “is not an informal one” and is consistent with the University System of Maryland’s parental-leave policy.

Another source of confusion comes when colleges’ parental-leave policies overlap with their short-term disability programs or with leave policies offered by the state in which they’re located, which provide paid leave but only at, say, two-thirds of a staff member’s usual salary. “If you’re an administrator not making a lot of money at a university, that’s a big deal to lose a significant amount of money in order just to have bonding time with your child,” Guth said. And those statewide programs, she feels, offer institutions an “out” that allows them to avoid carefully considering their own policies or to offer less of their own paid leave. Institutions that counted such short-term disability programs toward paid leave and required employees to pay a portion of their wages to cover that premium were not classified by Guth as offering paid leave for those periods.

Guth’s data doesn’t account for state-level leave policies or for whether employees must “stack” sick or personal leave, as at UMBC. But it’s still a useful resource, said Dawn Kiyoe Culpepper, a research assistant professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and associate director of the Advance program there. Reviewing their peer institutions’ status in Guth’s research could inspire administrators to boost their paid-leave policies. Culpepper noted, “Leaders tend to take policies and practices much more seriously when they see that their near or aspirational peers are taking action.”

While Guth didn’t find clear-cut regional differences in institutions’ policies, she did observe a stark divide in the leave time offered to faculty and to staff members. Florida International University, for example, offers faculty members the second-most paid parental leave of any institution in her analysis: 26 weeks. But staff members at Florida International don’t get any paid leave. (The institution did not return a request for comment.)

The differences are even more pronounced for graduate students, many of whom aren’t eligible for unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act since they aren’t classified as employees. Nearly a third of the institutions in her sample extended no paid parental-leave time for graduate students. It’s another example of the liminality graduate students often face, given what Culpepper described as their “quasi-employee, quasi-student” standing.

Such discrepancies ought to be examined, said Andy Brantley, president and chief executive of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Institutions should also consider improving their paid parental-leave policies “to ensure that they are competitive with the private sector and that adequate paid time off is available for the birth or adoption of a child,” Brantley said.

Making Decisions

Guth hopes that her comparative analysis will help stanch a leaky pipeline for women in STEM and professional programs by encouraging institutions to adopt more-hospitable policies. She also hopes that it will help people make decisions about where they work and study — perhaps opting for an institution with a more-robust paid-leave allowance. Culpepper, though, points out that paid-leave policies aren’t necessarily a make-or-break factor for prospective faculty members or graduate students.

“Maybe this was my own kind of naïveness, but I don’t think the extent to which there was paid leave was really on my radar, even though I did have kids as a graduate student and had kids as a faculty member,” Culpepper said. “Geographic locations, what was going to make sense for my partner, the level of support from the institution are factors that were higher at the top of my decision-making list than parental leave.”

Nor are an institution’s paid-leave policies indicative of its overall hospitality to women, she adds. “When we look across the board and we’re thinking about issues of advancement, of experience with bias and harassment and discrimination, with issues of sense of belonging and professional satisfaction, parental leave is not necessarily going to enhance the experience of women across all of those domains,” Culpepper said. Not every woman in academe will see parental leave as a crucial part of her benefit package, nor is it solely a women’s issue; men and nonbinary faculty members are affected by paid-leave policies, too.

While parental leave is often relevant when it comes to work-life policies, it only serves a certain population of employees for a brief period of their lives, she noted. “I am not in any way saying that paid parental leave isn’t really important, but I think we need to be thinking about supporting caregivers in many more ways than just giving 12 weeks or 30 weeks of paid parental leave,” she said.

But adding more weeks of paid leave shouldn’t be considered a “quick win” for institutions that want to affirm their commitment to women and families in the workplace. It’s an important consideration, and one that’s often hard-won through advocacy or collective-bargaining negotiations, Culpepper said.

Guth is also optimistic that her data could be a powerful tool in such conversations: She reached out to graduate students at Montana State University after noticing that their collective-bargaining agreement didn’t grant them any paid parental leave. The Montana State students said they’d consider bringing her data to the bargaining table as they renegotiate their contract this year. Guth said faculty members whose institutions are negotiating collective-bargaining agreements have reached out to her, too.

“My goal is to really help all institutions be a little bit more thoughtful when crafting paid parental-leave policies, or policies in general,” she said, “so situations like mine don’t happen to other parents.”

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