In the US, it’s not uncommon for a preschool teacher to make less than a tree trimmer. Childcare workers are often out-earned by janitors. The people caring for America’s youngest and most vulnerable are chronically underpaid and work in strenuous conditions, making it a struggle to recruit and train people for those jobs.
Bright Horizons, one of the biggest private childcare providers in the US, believes it has a solution. The company employs 20,000 teachers who care for about 100,000 children in more than 700 centers across the country. Last July, it rolled out an offer to pay upfront for its employees to get an online degree in early childhood education, expanding on an existing tuition assistance benefit program for staff.
As part of the program, educators working full-time in Bright Horizons childcare centers are eligible for upfront free tuition, including things like books, with no out-of-pocket costs. In exchange, participants commit to working at Bright Horizons for 18 months after getting their degree.
It’s an attempt at a corporate solution to a societal problem. America doesn’t have enough high-quality childcare options to meet the needs of kids and families. And as more states put in place minimum qualification requirements for early childcare centers, the shortage of qualified people willing to take on this difficult and low-paying job will become more acute. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings for preschool teachers will grow by 10% between 2016 and 2026, and yet many childcare centers across the country already can’t fill the openings they have.
The dearth of preschool teachers and childcare workers who can meet these qualification requirements could mean missed opportunities for America’s children. The years between birth and five are critical for brain development, and research has shown that a good preschool education gives children a strong start to life.
Bright Horizons believes its degree program could be an answer to this problem. But it’s an answer with shortcomings. Quartz found that the company partnered with schools with questionable credentials. The ability of a degree program to meaningfully raise teachers’ salaries and train them to better care for children also remains unclear. This illustrates some of the biggest questions facing the early education field: What qualifications and opportunities do caregivers need to stay in their jobs, and to do them well? And how can we best deliver those opportunities to recruit more of them to the field?
College tuition reimbursement programs have become a popular benefit for wealthy companies to offer their most loyal employees, from Starbucks to Chipotle. And for years, private, center-based educators, who look after an estimated 25% of American kids under five, could also turn to government or nonprofits if they wanted help getting an early childhood college degree.
Some federally-funded childcare programs like Head Start centers partner with universities to ensure a pipeline of qualified teachers. Initiatives like the non-profit T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood National Center work with states to raise wages for early childhood teachers and pay for them to go to college. In recent years, these programs have proliferated.
Yet it’s common for childcare workers in the US not to have college degrees. The main obstacle to getting one is that half of US preschool teachers make less than $29,780 a year, compared to $46,770 for elementary and secondary school teachers. While the cost of an early childhood degree can vary widely, even those on the lower-range can seem unaffordable for people working in that field.
Access and ongoing training are issues for the early childhood workforce, says Marcy Whitebook, co-director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. But “the basic crisis,” Whitebook says, “is the pay.”
According to the Department of Education, “most early childhood educators earn so little that they qualify for public benefits, including for the very programs they teach targeting low-income families.” That leaves few people with the resources and time to pursue a degree. Last year, Bright Horizons tried to meet those challenges by paying its employees to pursue early childhood degrees with no out-of-pocket costs.
The company partnered with Northampton Community College, Walden University, Rasmussen College, and Ashford University to administer two- or four-year online degrees in early-childhood education. These four schools allow employees to keep working while they earn their degrees online. Since launching the program, the company says more than 1,200 employees have enrolled in classes and 3,000 employees have expressed an interest in taking an advising session for the program.
Jenniffer Castro, an associate toddler teacher at a Bright Horizons childcare center in Woodbury, New York, always knew she wanted to teach little kids, but didn’t have the means. She enrolled in an early childhood education program at Nassau Community College in New York, and for a year juggled a full-time degree program and two jobs. But she still couldn’t afford her classes and had to drop out. Through Bright Horizons, she was able to enroll in a four-year bachelor’s degree program in early childhood education with Ashford University. With the support of the company, she has continued to work while studying towards her degree.
“It benefits me so much and helps me juggle my personal life, my family, my work, and I can get everything done on time without any stress,” said Castro.
If the only roadblock to better pay, higher recruitment, and lower teacher turnover was a college degree, then programs like the one started by Bright Horizons would be an easy fix. But for childcare workers and teachers, the benefits of a degree are not always that clear.
To start with, getting a degree doesn’t necessarily result in a significant increase to wages for everyone. According to the Brookings’ Institute’s Hamilton Project, early childhood education is one of the lowest-earning college majors in the US. Caregivers and teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn nearly half the average earnings of other people with bachelors degrees, according to the Department of Education. These disparities disproportionately affect women of color (pdf).
In the case of Bright Horizons, CEO Stephen Kramer said employees are already paid above the market average for private daycare, and added that those who went through the degree program would see a bump in their salary, but declined to provide numbers.
There’s a wide disparity in the kinds of educators that benefit from getting a college degree. A qualified educator working in a public school-sponsored program, for example, can expect to make up to $14,000 more per year than those employed privately in a community-based program. This leaves private childcare centers even more in need of qualified educators.
There’s also the question of whether a college degree will ultimately lead to better quality early childhood education and care, which was highlighted after a growing number of states put in place minimum teacher qualifications for preschool teachers. Several presidential candidates have made this a part of their platform, including senator Elizabeth Warren. But the question of how to best deliver these qualifications to teachers is “one of the biggest challenges” facing the field, says Laura Bornfreund, director of early education policy at the New America think tank.
Some experts argue that a college degree is a poor measure of someone’s ability to care for little kids, and that on-the-ground experience—watching kids develop, playing with them, and soothing them—is what matters most. “Mandating such credentials, they say, only makes child care even less affordable and reduces the supply and diversity of people able to do the job,” writes Claire Cain Miller for The New York Times. And there is little evidence that having a preschool teacher with a college degree inherently and on its own improves children’s outcomes.
Others argue that entrusting children between birth and five, who are going through their most critical period of development, to less-qualified teachers, can hurt kids’ life outcomes. “Young children are natural scientists and innovators who test ideas and evaluate results,” Anne Douglass, an associate professor of early childhood education and care at the University of Massachusetts, has written. “It requires skill, experience and knowledge to structure learning experiences and ask questions that guide the development of children’s creative problem solving and conceptual thinking.”
Part of the problem with knowing the benefits of a degree, experts say, is that there are a lot of poor-quality early childhood education degrees out there. And while online degrees like the ones offered through Bright Horizons programs provide teachers with the flexibility they need to earn their degrees while working, another debate exists over whether those courses are as robust as an in-person education.
“With online degree programs, you always have to ask the question: How good are these programs? Are the [early childhood education] instructors themselves well-qualified? What does the curriculum look like … relative to an in-person degree program?” asks Chris Herbst, an associate professor at Arizona State University who works on early childhood education and has researched Bright Horizons’ new program. At the end of the day, Herbst says, the impact “of allowing teachers to get this degree is going to be felt only insofar as the degree programs are worthwhile and high-quality.”
For-profit online degree programs have proliferated in the US in recent years and come under scrutiny for the quality of the education they provide. Some—including Ashford University and Walden University, two of the four partner schools Bright Horizons has partnered with—have faced lawsuits for their business practices.
Bright Horizons says that when it searched partner schools, it looked for ones that were “aligned [with], accredited, or recognized” by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a marker of the quality of their early childhood programs. Northampton Community College is NAEYC-accredited and Walden University‘s Early Childhood Master’s degree is NAEYC-recognized. But NAEYC told Quartz that neither Rasmussen nor Ashford University have sought out specific accreditation for their early childhood degree programs.
Bright Horizons later said it required the schools to “report regularly on their standards so that we could feel comfortable that they were aligned with the NAEYC process, and … demonstrate that they are working towards the application for NAEYC accreditation or recognition.” But NAEYC told Quartz that neither school was registered as a candidate for accreditation in their systems. And the value to consumers of Bright Horizons’ own estimation that the schools were “aligned” with NAEYC’s standards is not equal to an independent quality assessment. “Ultimately, it is not limited in the future to these four schools,” said a Bright Horizons representative. “We would absolutely welcome other schools that can meet these same criteria.”
Bright Horizons’ choice of partners to administer early childhood education degrees underscores the tension between wanting to provide flexible training opportunities and assessing the quality of these types of programs. These tensions represents a major challenge to doing this kind of program well.
The Bright Horizons program won’t solve the systemic shortage of early educators and childcare workers in the United States. That will require reevaluating what is expected of teachers and how they should be compensated. It also requires a broader consensus about what kind of training is needed to help those who take care of little kids do the best job they possibly can.
Bright Horizons CEO Stephen Kramer believes that if qualification requirements continue to go up without the buffer of more public spending, the teacher shortage crisis will worsen. If that happens, he says, “we’re going to be in a very challenging position where there aren’t enough people to meet the minimum standards that are being imposed.” Bright Horizons wants to “step forward and truly be thought leaders around how we collectively, as a field, will continue to enhance the number of individuals who are choosing to get an early childhood degree.”
The company believes it can build a better pipeline of early childhood educators in private center-based care facilities. But for an industry-funded solution to work, it needs to prove that it can give these teachers a degree that will lead them to better pay, motivate them to stay in the field, and improve the quality of the care and education they give little kids—without worsening the existing childcare crisis by making center-based care more expensive and less available.
Bright Horizons says the cost of tuition—which can vary from $12,500 to $57,000 per teacher—won’t be passed on to customers. “We think that we will be able to totally recoup the investment through … reinforcing our culture, lowering our turnover rate, and increasing and improving the quality of our programs,” Kramer explains. “We don’t believe that this teacher degree program will have an economic impact on our families.” The company declined to say how much its tuition assistance is costing it, other than to say it invests “millions of dollars” into it every year.
At the heart of the problem are critical questions policy makers and companies need to answer: How do you build a capable and effective public and private early childcare workforce, one that recognizes the unique needs of young children? How do you make it affordable and scalable in a short enough time period to address the qualified teacher shortage crisis? And how do you pay that workforce commensurately with the value of the service they are providing?
One corporate program is not the answer to all these questions. But the engagement of a company like Bright Horizons in the problem makes experts like Herbst hopeful. Its impact on the childcare market, he says, “could be a game changer.”
Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.