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This Child Care Chain Will Now Pay for Its Employees to Get College Degrees

Photo illustration: A stock image of an early childhood education professional at play with students. There is a graduate's cap edited on to the teacher's head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Ask any parent or guardian about child care in the United States, and he or she will agree: It’s a bank-breaking, anxiety-inducing mess. For many families, child care costs more annually than in-state college tuition, while the U.S. has some of the lowest public spending on early childhood education—a broad term that encompasses care for any child before kindergarten—in the developed world. Fewer and fewer college graduates are pursuing degrees in early childhood education, citing concerns about low salaries and a lack of professional development. Meanwhile, parents and experts are demanding their child care providers be more and more experienced and educated. All these factors have led to a workforce shortage in early childhood education, which is in part causing the spread of child care deserts across the United States.

In order to address the problem of fewer teachers entering and staying in early childhood education, Bright Horizons, which runs around 800 child care centers in the United States, announced earlier this month that it will begin offering its full-time child care center employees free college tuition and educational coaching. The chain is the first in early childhood education to offer employees an accessible and free route to pursuing an associate or bachelor’s degree in the field.

Bright Horizons says its program, which could help about 15,000 full-time employees out of its 20,000 teachers, came from interviews with staff. “Over and over again we kept hearing that our teachers were interested in furthering their own education,” says Bright Horizons CEO Stephen Kramer. “But what was strange about that is we have a tuition assistance program with very modest usage. So, we started to evaluate the barriers for teachers wanting to go back to school.” The company found that workers couldn’t afford to pay tuition, and many had been out of school for so long they didn’t know where to begin.

The program pairs educational coaching with upfront tuition payments (as well as fees and books) for a degree in early childhood education from one of four online institutions, with no out-of-pocket costs to the employee. There’s no waiting period: All interested full-time employees can opt in to the program even if they recently began their roles. Anyone who participates has access to an education adviser through EdAssist, which Bright Horizons owns. The adviser helps employees choose between the online institutions, three of which are for-profit, that are recognized or pursuing recognition from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. After completing a program, the employee must work at a Bright Horizons early education center or preschool for 18 months or else pay back the tuition. If the employee doesn’t finish a degree but stays at work, she won’t be required to reimburse tuition costs.

More than 1,000 employees have signed up since the program’s announcement. Kramer says that more than two-thirds are from diverse backgrounds, and more than half are over the age of 35.

Bright Horizons says it plans to finance the program through existing revenue without raising the cost of its child care fees. A spokesperson also says the company plans to increase pay for those who obtain higher levels of education, and they will be encouraged to apply to higher positions within the company. When pressed for more of its financial rationale behind such a potentially expensive program, Bright Horizons cited a dedication to keeping its workforce diverse and leading the way in industry employment standards. It’s also likely Bright Horizons recognizes the serious demand for more quality child care and, in looking to expand its footprint, simply needs more qualified teachers to go around.

And it’s important to note that wages for highly educated employees are still low. Early childhood educators receive some of the lowest return on investment when pursuing a college degree. Even those with bachelor’s degrees are “penalized” on average about $8,000 a year for working with young children rather than children in kindergarten or above, according to a study from University of California–Berkeley. Infant and toddler educators with bachelor’s degrees and higher earn just an average of $13.38 an hour. Imagine putting in all the work of getting a degree and still making poverty-level wages.

Parents, education experts, policymakers, and educators increasingly agree that the standards for working with kids at the most important time of their development should be higher. But Bright Horizons only employs a fraction of the 2.2 million people in the early childhood workforce. And there are other inherent limitations to relying on for-profit businesses to pay for these important advancements. For one, they can end their investment at any time—when it is no longer good for PR, or tuition becomes too expensive.

The early childhood education field needs more public assistance if we expect higher-quality programs on a large scale while keeping costs accessible for more families. It’s great to get inspiration from big moves in the private sector, but ultimately, we can’t solve these problems in private—either by finagling our own family finances at home or by companies making incremental changes. It’s time for the U.S. to graduate from babysitter wages to an actual public infrastructure for early childhood professionals.