Can Higher Ed Help Early Ed Grow Up?

Early Learning

Can Higher Ed Help Early Ed Grow Up?

By Rebecca Koenig     Nov 17, 2021

When Texas cleared the way for community colleges to create bachelor’s degree programs in fields with high demand for workers, leaders at Dallas College jumped at the chance. They considered three career tracks—nursing, IT and early childhood education—and decided to start with the latter.

One reason why was the need in North Texas for thousands more people trained to serve children from birth through third grade. Another was a push to prepare future teachers specifically for those young learners, rather than for elementary schools more broadly.

“We know from a pedagogy perspective that learning to teach a four-, five-, or six-year-old is different than learning to teach a fifth or sixth grader,” says Robert DeHaas, vice provost of the School of Education at Dallas College.

A third motivation was to design a program around the needs of current and aspiring early childhood teachers and caregivers, who sometimes find college beyond their reach due to cost or the challenges of scheduling classes around their work. So the institution made its bachelor’s degree affordable, charging $79 per credit, which includes textbook costs.

So far, interest has been high. More than 3,000 people applied for the first cohort. The vast majority of those who enrolled are first-generation college students and people of color.

“We know how important it is to cultivate a next generation of educators that is really reflective of educators and the communities they serve,” DeHaas says.

It’s an example of the strategies some colleges are using to help train more people to provide high-quality early childhood education. A new report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children explores how to make schooling and care for infants, toddlers and children through age eight a bigger priority at colleges and universities—and assesses what the barriers are to making that happen.

The report, based on interviews with nearly 30 higher ed leaders, makes the case that the time is right for colleges to throw their weight behind early ed. There’s momentum on the national level for investing more public money in child care and preschool, and there is a need for more workers in many local communities where universities are located. There is ample scientific research about the lifelong benefits of high-quality early schooling, which can extend beyond individuals and families to help close racial equity gaps in society, a goal that more institutions of higher ed are embracing.

“If we get high-quality early education right, it moves us toward our agenda around inclusivity and equity, kids graduating from high school and going on to postsecondary institutions and into a highly compensated workforce,” says Rhian Evans Allvin, report author and CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The report makes several recommendations for what colleges can do to train more early educators to high standards. One is making it easier logistically for people to earn bachelor’s degrees in the field, either by building those degree programs at community colleges, like Dallas College did, or by smoothing the way for students to transfer from associate degree programs at community colleges to bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions. Another is to make child care available on campus, as well as other wraparound supports that make it more possible for student-parents to study. A third is to require professional accreditation for teacher-preparation programs to raise expectations for worker quality—which the National Association for the Education of Young Children offers.

“Right now in most states the floor of expectation is: high school diploma, finger-printed and free of tuberculosis,” Evans Allvin says.

Yet several hurdles stand in the way of such suggestions. Some are new to the pandemic. A May 2021 survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children of 600 faculty from 400 higher ed institutions found that among early childhood ed programs during the crisis:

  • Almost two-thirds had enrollment declines
  • More than one-third had graduation declines
  • 30 percent experienced budget cuts
  • 2 percent closed

Other barriers are longstanding. Pay in the early childhood sector is low, averaging just more than $11 an hour nationwide, according to the report, and wages don’t increase very much with a bachelor’s degree, moving to an average of $14.80 for workers with a BA in Head Start programs. That doesn’t provide much of a financial incentive for people to complete advanced degrees.

It also prompts college leaders to think carefully about encouraging students to pursue a career teaching young children. At Dallas College, leaders are “recognizing the need to offer credentials that lead to a living wage,” DeHaas says—which in Texas means a bachelor’s degree.

“We’re not bashful about calling that out,” he adds. “How are we going to pat ourselves on the back for awarding a certificate like a CDA [Child Development Associate] that is going to lead to a job that is earning minimum wage? It’s challenged us in higher ed to think beyond that. It’s not minimizing those credentials, but forcing us to think more strategically.”

Another deterrent for workers and institutions to invest in early childhood education is the fact that degrees are not always mandatory to work in the industry. A bachelor’s degree is required to teach in K-12 public schools, so teachers of kindergarten through grades three must have them. But that’s not the case for the years before kindergarten. At early childhood centers, about half of educators have a postsecondary degree and a third have a bachelor’s degree, according to the new report. Those figures drop among licensed home-based providers; 31 percent of them have a postsecondary degree and 17 percent of them have a bachelor’s degree.

Some cities and states are increasing credential requirements, however, which has led some colleges in those places to redesign the programs they offer and recruit early childhood teachers to enroll.

Community colleges are where Evans Allvin sees the most innovation happening. But with few students actually earning associate degrees in the recommended two years, many of those institutions are fighting what DeHaas calls a “two-front war” of preparing students for a profession while also battling poor college-completion trends.

“I think higher education really has to do some deep thinking around how to get the traditional early childhood educators from A to B. It’s not necessarily linear,” DeHaas says. “It can’t take my students eight years to get a bachelor’s degree.”

Much of what has held early childhood education back at colleges comes down to money: low pay for workers, a dearth of dollars for research and high tuition costs for students. Evans Allvin is hopeful that federal proposals for investing in the sector will make it a bigger priority for higher education.

“To realize the aspirational goals we all espouse, there’s gotta be the policy and the financing to back that up,” she says. “It is the chance to upend so many of the inequities that have plagued our field for decades.”

 

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