The staggering cost of a college education has received a lot of attention recently, and rightfully so.

But in 33 states, including Maine, the cost of day care for an infant exceeds the cost of tuition at nearby public four-year institutions. The high price of child care is a burden for most families, especially those with multiple children. But it causes a particular struggle for low-income families and families led by single mothers.

That is forcing women out of the workforce and children into less-than-optimal care arrangements, stifling potential on both fronts.

That is particularly true in Maine, one of the 10 least affordable states for child care for a 4-year-old, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.

For a 4-year-old child, day care takes up nearly 11 percent of the state’s median income for a married couple, and a staggering 37 percent of the median income for a single mother.

And throughout the country, the high price of child care is propping up an underperforming system. One study found that 10 percent of day cares were of low quality, while 80 percent were fair.

Most child care providers offered a safe place for children to spend the day and socialize — a low bar that is not always reached, as Maine found out last year — but not much more.

In addition, the national average wage for a full-time child care worker is $10.33 an hour, which is only slightly more than the average fast food worker.

It is the highly regulated and labor-intensive nature of the industry that makes child care expensive, not the high wages.

No one is getting rich, and the margins make it difficult for the providers who are affordable for low- and moderate-income families to make the most out of what are some very important years in the life of a child.

That’s unfortunate, because high-quality early education saves money, despite its high costs. Children who receive it do better in school, require less special education, are more likely to attend college and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, and the impact is particularly strong for children from low-income families.

There is also a cost to parents and employers when reliable child care is not available. Productivity drops, and absenteeism and turnover rise.

One, partial answer is universal pre-kindergarten, which is available in only about 60 percent of Maine schools.

Another is the use of expanded tax credits, which can target the families that have the most financial need, and still require families to pay a portion of the cost.

But it would be a good start if the high cost were simply considered as stunting and restrictive as the cost of higher education, and given the same attention.

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