BriAnne Moline’s path through higher education is not unlike that of millions of other students in the U.S. After first earning her associate degree in early childhood education, she has, for eight years, been slowly chipping away at a bachelor’s degree too, taking on more classes when her life allowed for it and backing away when disruptions like family illness interfered.
Now, she has about a year left of coursework until she graduates with her bachelor’s degree. She also has about $60,000 in cumulative student loans, she says.
More than 40 million Americans will have some or all of their student loan debt relieved under the Biden administration’s newly announced loan forgiveness program, which plans to cancel up to $10,000 of debt for borrowers with an annual income below $125,000 and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients with an annual income below the same threshold.
Moline, along with thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of other early childhood educators, will be among those eligible for the debt relief. And it comes as especially good news to them, since their field seldom pays its educators enough to make ends meet, let alone to repay borrowed funds.
The early childhood education landscape in the U.S. is fragmented, and credential requirements vary widely. In most states, postsecondary degrees are not necessary to become an early childhood educator, says Mary Harrill, senior director of higher education accreditation and program support for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a national nonprofit membership and research organization.
Yet a number of states do require some postsecondary coursework. And plenty of programs have their own credentialing requirements, including the federal Head Start program, which requires lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, among other things. And requirements aside, many adults who pursue careers working with young children seek higher education anyway. That’s because they view the requirements (along with the respect and pay) of the field to be well behind what current research suggests is needed to provide children with high-quality care and education.
“We know that the science really points to early childhood educators having competencies, skills and knowledge” in their field, says Harrill. “We want early childhood educators to have postsecondary educations. Many early childhood educators recognize the importance of it and how it strengthens children, but many can’t afford it at this time.”
Moline can attest to that, and feels it’s holding some of her peers back from entering the field and preventing others who are already in the field from sharpening their skills.
“The cost of higher education is a very big deterrent for many current and prospective early childhood educators,” Moline says.
Taking on Debt to Become a Better Educator
Moline got into the field of early childhood after the birth of her first child. The Montana-based educator wanted to be a good parent and provide her son with a research-backed upbringing that followed best practices. Along the way, she ended up taking a job as an aide at a local child care facility in Missoula, where she lives. She discovered she was very interested in child development and enrolled in a public four-year university nearby to start working toward her associate degree. She wanted to bolster her ongoing work in early childhood with the types of professional preparation she felt she could only get from higher education.
That was 2009. At the time, Moline was a single mother working a full-time job and going to school on the side when she could squeeze it in. “To make ends meet, I had to take loans out,” she says, noting that she spent her money on rent, books and child care, and contributed to a modest savings account in case her car broke down or she ran into another emergency.
Once she graduated with her associate degree, in 2014, she continued on, pursuing her bachelor’s. Her experience so far had been in center-based care settings, but a professor encouraged her to start her own in-home program. She opened it in March 2017 and still runs it today.
Technically speaking, a bachelor’s degree is not required for what Moline does now or what she aspires to do in her career in early childhood. “There is no pay raise, per se. No financial benefit,” she notes. But that was never really what it was about for her. Moline wants to make sure she is providing the very best care to the children she serves, and she feels higher education is the way to do that.
“I’m looking forward, and I know that best practice is moving toward early childhood educators having a bachelor’s degree,” she says. “I’m trying to be a leader in my state, to set an example.”
It’s also meaningful to Moline because she was the first person in her family to get an associate degree and will be the first to earn her bachelor’s. She wants to show her four sons that this is something they can achieve, too.
Under the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness program, and as a Pell Grant recipient, Moline expects to have $20,000 of her total debt forgiven. It’s not going to wipe out her entire balance—more like a third of it—but it’s something.
Natalie Williams, director of education at Miami Children’s Museum in Florida, has a combination of student loan debt from her undergraduate program and two master’s programs. In total, she’s looking at more than a six-figure balance.
Most of Williams’s debt comes from her first master’s degree program, which she earned about a decade ago in order to take a job with Bright Horizons, the largest provider of employer-sponsored child care in the country and what Williams describes at the “leading” child care organization at the time. To work there in the role she was interested in, she says she had to either be enrolled in a master’s program or already have the degree. So she enrolled.
The Biden administration’s program will help her, she says, but not much.
“It’s a start,” Williams says. “It doesn’t feel significant, at all. But it’s definitely a start.”
‘The Educators Should Be Educated’
Even though many early childhood educators have postsecondary degrees and recognize the value of being in the field with some credentials, they also see how imbalanced the cost of higher education is compared to their own future earnings potentials.
The fact is, the return on investment for early childhood educators who have or are pursuing postsecondary credentials is dismal. It’s not uncommon for educators in the field, whether they have a high school diploma or a master’s degree, to be earning poverty-level wages. Nearly half receive some sort of public assistance because their salaries are so low they qualify—and depend on it.
“They want that professional preparation. But it’s in direct conflict” with the way our early childhood system operates, Harrill says, noting that early childhood educators do not often make a livable wage. “It’s extremely difficult for them to afford to pursue higher education.”
Adrienne Briggs, owner and sole educator at Lil’ Bits Family Child Care Home in Philadelphia, has operated her program for 30 years. She sought out higher education in 2006 when “everything in early childhood was starting to change” and she sensed a degree requirement was coming.
“Children were changing. Regulations were changing. Standards were changing,” she says. “To offer the best I could offer at the highest quality possible, I went ahead and started the schooling path.”
She feels the degrees she received—a bachelor’s in 2011 and master’s in 2013—have made a difference.
Briggs’s program has earned the highest quality rating in Pennsylvania, a Keystone STARS 4. And she knows that children leave her program “over-prepared” for kindergarten. Those quality markers have amounted to more than pride and self-assuredness. Briggs believes it has contributed to her program’s longevity, even as many, including home-based programs like hers, have struggled and closed.
Yet at age 62, she’d rather be thinking about retirement than the debt that still hangs over her head.
She graduated from her master’s program with just under $60,000 in student loans. Nearly 10 years later, despite her regular monthly payments, even during the pandemic, she says, “I really haven’t put a dent in it.”
Briggs is on an income-based repayment plan that allows her to only pay $150 per month, instead of $650. And even though she can’t imagine ever paying them off fully, she doesn’t regret getting the degrees.
“I believe that the educators should be educated,” she says. “Studies are showing that early childhood development is constantly changing. The more we know, the more we’re able to give.”
She adds: “When I came in, the main thing was making sure kids were potty trained and knew their A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s. We’re way beyond that now.” She named social-emotional learning, diversity and inclusion, changing curricula and standards, and family engagement as some of the areas she’s expected to be well-versed in now.
Instead of expecting less from early childhood educators, Briggs says, the public must do more.
“We really need to do better for the educators—the ones that take care of the youngest children, at the most precious time in a child’s life,” she says. “The ones who handle that most precious age are not compensated or recognized in that way.”