NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The yearly cost of childcare in Tennessee is more expensive on average than in-state college tuition, according to a new report from Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE).

“It’s a huge challenge for a lot of families and it seems to be getting more and more difficult,” said Kylie Graves with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. “Costs are exorbitant, accessibility is a huge challenge.”

According to TQEE, the price for child care at a center, rather than in-home, is $11,068 for infants and $10,184, regardless of quality.

However, that is if a parent can even find a place to send their child. Seventy percent of parents said the most significant challenge with finding childcare is access over quality and affordability.

For Jesse and Cameron Leonard, access and affordability have kept them from finding childcare for their 15-month-old son.

“It’s like an uphill battle with no traction,” Jesse Leonard said.

Jesse said when she was in her first trimester with her son, people were already asking her if she was on waitlists for childcare. She said at the time, she thought she didn’t need to hurry.

“No, I did not have time. And, it just kind of snuck up on us. And all the sudden, he was here and I didn’t have options,” she said.

After more than a year of searching, the couple guesses they are on about four waitlists. However, they say most waitlists require a deposit of $50-$100 or more, so they carefully weigh the cost before getting on a new list.

“The waiting list isn’t guaranteeing you a spot,” Cameron Leonard explained. “It’s just guaranteeing you are on a list should an opening become open. So at the end of the day, you are spending all of this money to be on several different waiting lists with no guarantee.”

The Leonards say, so far, all of the spots that have opened up have been out of their budget with some places charging the equivalent of a month’s rent for a month of childcare.

“If you make enough money to provide for yourself it’s like you almost can’t afford childcare on top of that,” Jesse said.

Jesse said she even applied to work at some childcare centers to get free or discounted childcare for her son, but the math didn’t add up.

“The pay cut I would have to take going from a salary position at a nonprofit would be massive,” she said.

According to TQEE, the average yearly pay for a childcare worker in Tennessee is $23,780.

“The childcare industry was failing to meet the needs of families before the pandemic,” write the study’s authors. “Now given the stresses of the pandemic on the child care workforce and other options for better pay, it’s no wonder the child care sector nationally has lost nearly 10% of its workforce.”

While understanding the stressors facing childcare workers, the Leonards say they are left feeling like they don’t have options other than praying.

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“We do have faith, there is a door, it will be open, but we are still waiting,” Jesse Leonard said.