This article is from Full Stack Economics, a newsletter about the economy, technology, and public policy.
Last August, a federal appeals court upheld regulations requiring many child care workers in Washington, D.C., to obtain two-year associate degrees by the end of 2023. Advocates say teachers are more effective in the classroom—even a classroom of toddlers—if they have a college degree. They hope the new rules, which have been in the works since 2016, will improve child care for all children in the city.
As a D.C. resident and parent of three young children, these rules have never made sense to me. D.C.’s main child care challenges are high costs and limited supply, not low quality. Requiring teachers to get college degrees will only make these problems worse. Higher costs could even force some parents to take their kids out of formal child care centers in favor of home-based or unlicensed options that are likely to be of lower quality.
So why are D.C. officials pushing it? I recently listened to the 2020 book Head, Hand, Heart, and it gave me a new way to think about the debate.* The author, British journalist David Goodhart, argues that Western democracies—especially the U.S. and the U.K.—have developed an unhealthy fixation on college as the sole yardstick for worker quality.
College students develop cognitive skills that will serve them well in white-collar professions like finance, engineering, or marketing. But Goodhart also identifies two broad job categories where cognitive skills are less important.
One is hands-on professions like electricians, plumbers, welders, or workers on an assembly line. For the most part, you don’t need to go to college to do these jobs well. For example, in most states you can get a plumber’s license after a few years working under a master plumber. The rules are similar for electricians.
I suspect that a system like this would be a better way to improve the skills of child care workers (who fall into Goodhart’s third category of care workers) than forcing all of them to get a college degree. Allowing child care workers to upgrade their skills on the job would certainly impose less of a financial burden.
But the drive for child care workers to be college-educated isn’t just about upgrading their practical skills. It’s also about raising their prestige. Americans consider it to be almost axiomatic that jobs that require a college degree are “more professional” than those that don’t. So if someone says that a profession doesn’t require a college degree, that’s almost taken as an insult. But it shouldn’t be.
Weak Evidence for College-Educated Child Care Workers
Advocates say there’s ample evidence that young children benefit when their care providers have college degrees. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading some of this research, and I came away unimpressed. There is a body of scientific research suggesting that college-educated teachers are more effective in the classroom. But these findings come with some important caveats.
First, most of the research has focused on classrooms at the preschool level or above. I found very few studies looking specifically at child care facilities for children under the age of 3.
Second, the arguments for teachers to get formal education change as you move from older to younger students.
It’s easy to see why you’d want, say, a high school physics teacher to have a college degree in physics. You need an in-depth understanding of physics to teach it well. But this kind of rationale gets less compelling at lower grade levels. Most adults—even those without a college degree—understand math and reading well enough to teach them to a kindergartener. And they definitely understand colors and animal noises well enough to teach those to a toddler.
So at the preschool level, research on teacher quality tends to focus not on subject-area mastery but on classroom style. For example, a 2003 literature review found that preschool teachers with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education “were less authoritarian, and were rated higher in positive interaction and lower on punitiveness and detachment.”
I personally like the idea of child care workers being more engaged and less punitive. But it’s not clear how much this ultimately matters. Indeed, it’s not clear that any aspect of preschool quality has lasting impacts on a student’s academic performance. Back in 2018, Vox’s Kelsey Piper dug into the research and found something surprising:
There’s a sizable body of research suggesting that kids who go through intensive education at the ages of 3 and 4 don’t really come out ahead in terms of academic abilities. By kindergarten much of their advantage has receded, and by second grade researchers typically can’t detect it at all.
On the other hand, there’s an equally substantive body of research suggesting that early childhood education produces a profound, lifelong advantage. Kids who enter intensive preschool programs are less likely to be arrested, more likely to graduate, and less likely to struggle with substance abuse as adults.
Piper’s hypothesis is that most of the benefits of preschool come not from its curriculum but from its function as child care. Reliable child care makes it easier for the child’s parents to work full time and advance in their careers. The resulting economic stability provides big benefits later in a child’s life.
While I haven’t found any research exploring this question, this seems likely to be even more true for children ages 3 and under. It may not matter very much what happens in the classroom as long as parents know their kids will be safe, happy, and have their basic needs met.
And importantly, the youngest children are the most labor-intensive to care for. The federal government recommends that preschools have 10 or fewer children per teacher. For 2-year-olds, the recommended maximum is six children per adult, while for babies under a year old it’s just four.
If you’ve ever spent time with small children, this makes perfect sense. Older children are more capable of sitting still, following directions, and doing independent work. Babies and toddlers need constant supervision and attention.
One consequence is that raising the standards for teacher quality is much more expensive at the lowest age levels. Suppose it costs an extra $15,000 to hire a college-educated teacher. In a 15-student kindergarten class, that works out to $1,000 per child. In an infant classroom with four babies per adult, it’s $3,750 per child.
So at the kindergarten level and above, it’s probably worth paying extra for college-educated teachers even if the per-child benefit is fairly small. For babies and toddlers, on the other hand, the benefits would need to be substantial to justify the cost.
Yet I suspect that, if anything, the average toddler gets less value out of having a college-educated teacher than a kindergartener would. On the other hand, attention-hungry toddlers seem likely to benefit more from a low student–teacher ratio. So hiring a larger number of less educated, lower-paid teachers seems like the right approach.
Not Every Job Needs a College Degree
But let’s say I’m wrong and the caregiving style of day care workers really does matter. It still seems pretty unlikely that two years of college coursework is an efficient way to impart the necessary skills. A child care worker doesn’t need an in-depth understanding of why punitiveness and detachment are harmful—they just need hands-on instruction on how to be less punitive and detached.
This is especially true when you consider the demographics of child care workers in D.C.: They are overwhelmingly foreign-born and many have limited English skills. Even if they can find the time and financial resources to pursue a college degree (and to be fair, D.C. is offering some scholarships), they may not have the necessary language skills or other academic prerequisites.
But the goal of many advocates isn’t just to improve the skills of child care workers, it’s also to improve their social status. This is made explicit in one of the reports most commonly cited by advocates of D.C.’s approach, a 2015 report called Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation.
In Chapter 9, the authors draw a connection between educational requirements and prestige, complaining that “society has tended to perceive working with younger children as less demanding and prestigious work, a perception that runs counter to the science of child development and early learning.”
Taken literally, this is a non sequitur. Whether a profession is or should be prestigious isn’t a scientific question. I think that what they really mean is that the science shows that the quality of early childhood education is important. And because it’s important, they reason, child care work should be prestigious and well-compensated. And the way to do that is to require child care workers to have a college degree.
But if the goal is to raise the compensation of child care workers, it would be better to just do that. Indeed, D.C. recently set up a system to subsidize the pay of child care workers. This should improve their lives without raising the cost to parents and without shoving anyone out of a job.
At the same time, it’s worth pushing back on the seemingly relentless drive to raise educational requirements for a range of occupations. Not everyone has the opportunity or aptitude to go to college, and the skills students develop in college aren’t needed to do most jobs across the economy.
When employers mindlessly demand a college degree based on a vague idea that college-educated workers are higher quality or more “professional,” it limits the opportunities of non-college-educated workers—a majority of the population—for no good reason.
Last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro announced an initiative to relax college degree requirements for a range of government jobs. “My view is that if you’re qualified for the job, that you should get the job here in Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said. This is a worthwhile reform that will allow for more upward mobility in the state. I hope D.C. policymakers are paying attention.
Correction, Feb. 9, 2023: This article originally misidentified the book as Head, Heart, and Hand. The book’s title is Head, Hand, Heart.