Magazine Feature

Babies Need You, Higher Ed!

Why a strong start for young children requires visionary leadership, investment, and support from colleges and universities

By Mary Harrill

Winter 2024

Visit any childcare program across the country, and you have a good chance of coming upon a busy, joyful, and noisy classroom of three-year-olds learning concepts of engineering, science, and language by building with blocks, exploring the texture and shapes of stones and leaves, or singing a song with their teacher. Peek into the classroom next door, however, and you’ll likely find it dark and empty. This isn’t because not enough families in the community need childcare. It isn’t because the program doesn’t want to maximize enrollment. It’s simply because too few early childhood educators are available to staff every classroom.

“I have calls and emails weekly from [childcare] programs saying, ‘Please, can you send us your students?’ ” says Jamie Heberlein, chair of the Early Childhood Education (ECE) Department at Portland Community College in Oregon. “They need qualified and trained teachers in their classrooms.”

Childcare programs are desperate to staff up so that they can serve young children, typically through the age of five, and their families. But, with the high cost of living in Portland, Heberlein says, early childhood educators are leaving positions paying $18 per hour to work at car washes and the front desks of veterinary offices for $25 an hour. Talk to ECE faculty at any higher education institution, and you will probably hear a similar description of the state of the ECE field, with staff shortages in both childcare settings and elementary schools from kindergarten through third grade. Carrie Nepstad, ECE program coordinator at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, was fielding daily calls from childcare programs seeking staff. She ended up partnering with her college’s career center to connect Chicago programs directly with students by posting their positions college-wide.

The complexities of ECE and its clinical aspects make preparing the workers in this field a critical undertaking—one in which higher education plays a pivotal role. Besides providing a pipeline for a diverse and well-prepared ECE workforce, higher education has the potential to strengthen and bring respect to a field that has yet to be recognized as the high-skill, high-demand profession that it is.

The earliest years of life are a critical window in development and learning and have lifelong impacts on a person’s health, education, economic success, civic engagement, and well-being. From birth through the age of eight, children undergo crucial social and emotional development, as well as rapid cognitive and physical growth. Teachers and workers involved in the care and education of young children, therefore, need a complex set of professional skills to effectively support infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and K–3 students. These skills include understanding child development and what influences it; the ability to work with families to further support children in their learning and development; and knowledge of standards of assessment and professional ethics, in addition to teaching strategies.

Higher education is already a central contributor to the growth, stability, and quality of established professions like nursing, law, architecture, and speech-language pathology. Colleges and universities provide the primary professional preparation for these fields and also generate much of the research that informs what’s needed in them. The ECE field, however, lacks the unified structure, standards, and recognition these other professional fields enjoy. As a result, it suffers from fragmentation, low wages, frequent shortages of resources and funding, and the absence of clearly defined skills, roles, and responsibilities for the workforce.

Yet many higher education leaders consistently affirm the importance of their institutions in contributing to a well-prepared ECE workforce and the potential for quality ECE to help close persistent equity gaps in schooling and beyond, according to a 2021 report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “If we do not invest in ECE, then we will continue to see students as they work their way through the educational system who are not well served,” Margaret Annunziata, president of Isothermal Community College in North Carolina, says in the report Preparing a Profession: Perspectives of Higher Education Leaders on the Future of the Early Childhood Education Workforce. “The only way to close equity gaps is to do it at the beginning. Preparing highly qualified early childhood educators is the right thing to do and the only way we change this.”

(SDI Productions/iSTOCK)

In the United States, nearly three thousand ECE programs at the associate, baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral levels train individuals to be early childhood educators and to work as leaders, faculty, state administrators, trainers, and other ECE personnel. The tenacity and resourcefulness of ECE faculty at some colleges and universities, along with investments by individual states in the professional preparation of the ECE workforce, have been essential to the ability of higher education programs to address their communities’ needs. Still, the decades-long devaluation of childcare in the United States, reflected in poverty-level wages for many in the industry, presents a conundrum for higher education.

Recent interdisciplinary research—drawn from economists, neuroscientists, child development experts, and social scientists—shows that when children participate in high-quality ECE, they have improved cognitive and social outcomes and are more likely to graduate from high school and become productive contributors to local, state, and national economies. Yet early childhood educators, particularly those working in childcare programs, suffer from poor compensation and a minimally respected career largely due to historic bias rooted in sexism and racism that has devalued the work of women. The fact remains that the vast majority of the ECE workforce is female—almost 97 percent in 2019, according to the US Census Bureau, 42 percent of whom are Black and Brown women. Further, the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds childcare to be among the lowest-paying occupations in the country. And, because childcare, unlike K–12 education, is not treated as a public good, the burden of financing its cost is on families and is subsidized by the low wages of early childhood educators.

These hurdles and the misperception that working in ECE requires anything less than a set of specialized skills can lead higher education institutions away from, instead of toward, investing in their ECE degree programs and positioning themselves as stakeholders in the ECE community. Now more than ever, though, early education needs higher education as a partner to help resolve the ECE staffing crisis and contribute to professionalizing the workforce.

Nationally, waitlists for childcare programs grow every day. This is in direct response to approximately twenty thousand programs permanently closing during the pandemic and almost a hundred thousand early childhood educators exiting the field due to burnout and moves for higher-paying work, according to the Century Foundation. Elementary schools have also seen increases in teacher shortages since the pandemic, with almost a third reporting being understaffed, according to the Economic Policy Institute. This trajectory isn’t expected to improve any time soon. While the US government invested a historic $40 billion in childcare during the pandemic through federal aid to states, this relief funding ran out in September 2023, leaving some seventy thousand childcare programs anticipating that they will have to close if they do not receive another significant infusion of government support.

Despite this challenging outlook, momentum is growing in many states and on some higher education campuses to invest in the ECE workforce, through accessible programs, financial assistance for students, and other incentives. The early childhood program at Jefferson State Community College in Alabama, for example, has significantly amped up its efforts to create a direct ECE career pathway from high school to the college. High school students who complete the ECE program achieve a nationally recognized early entry credential called a child development associate (CDA) and gain college credits toward the ECE associate degree at Jefferson. The college is hiring a CDA portfolio specialist to support students as they work to obtain this credential. Each cohort of CDA students also receives scholarship assistance. Enrollment has held steady over the past few years, despite the pandemic, in part because of the intentional partnerships with local high schools. Plus, the program prepares students for a credential required to practice in childcare programs that participate in Alabama’s ECE Quality Rating and Improvement System, which is used to assess and improve the ECE programs in the state.

Dallas College, serving more than 120,000 students via a recent merger of seven community colleges, has also created a program to meet ECE credential requirements in Texas. Recognizing the state’s significant shortage of early childhood educators, the college launched a new, four-year ECE bachelor’s degree program. Because many early childhood educators who want to pursue higher education face financial and other access barriers, Dallas College offers the degree for less than $10,000. Indeed, most students do not pay the full amount because of the numerous financial supports offered by the state and the college itself for ECE students. In spring 2023, the program graduated its first cohort of more than one hundred students, with approximately 1,200 others currently enrolled in the ECE bachelor’s program.

“Our program prioritizes responding to the community and breaking down the barriers to our students’ getting a credential of value,” says Wendy Farr, dean of baccalaureate studies in the School of Education at Dallas College. “We don’t do this by lowering the bar of quality of our program or bar of expectations for students. Instead, we up our supports so that students can meet the bar.”

This plays out in several ways at Dallas College. When a student first enrolls in the ECE program, at either the associate or baccalaureate level, one of the deans in the School of Education calls to ask them what supports they anticipate needing in order to be successful. Three themes have emerged that have led to investment in crucial resources for ECE students: many have children of their own and need childcare in order to attend and study for classes; many had negative academic experiences in their prior schooling and are nervous about taking tests in college-level courses; and more than 70 percent live in poverty, so accessing financial resources is important. The School of Education has hired success coaches to support students in accessing housing and transportation resources and to provide academic support. Funding is also available to cover childcare costs.

(Shutterstock/Sergey Novikov)

Back in Oregon, the Portland community has a large Latino population and, as such, needs more bilingual early childhood educators. In response, Portland Community College launched a cohort of bilingual ECE students. Through a grant, the program translated all course materials into Spanish for the ECE degree and hired a bilingual instructor to teach the 100-level courses. The program is free for students due to scholarships through the grant. It also partnered with neighboring school districts to provide their pre-K staff with professional development to support them in becoming bilingual and extending their ECE professional preparation.

Like at Dallas College, attending to the barriers that ECE students face in accessing and completing their programs is a central focus for the Portland program. The college regularly surveys its students to better understand what is or isn’t working for them. Over the years, the ECE program has built out its online course offerings as many students were unable to attend classes in person because they were already working full or part time. And though many courses were offered at night because of the working student population, the survey showed that a majority of students actually preferred daytime courses. They were tired after working a full day, and finding childcare at night for their children was difficult. Those already working in childcare programs preferred taking a class during the day during their lunch break or while the children napped. In response, the program increased its daytime offerings, and enrollment jumped.

Working alongside these institutional efforts, many states bolster ECE with direct investments in both ECE higher education programs and their students. Twenty-three states participate in T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood National Center, a division of Child Care Services Association that since 1990 has been helping early childhood educators gain postsecondary credentials. In 2022, the center partnered with nongovernmental sponsor ECE organizations in those states to support more than fifteen thousand early childhood educators in obtaining ECE certificates and degrees (almost 50 percent were educators of color, and more than 50 percent were first-generation students). This also required partnering with almost eight thousand ECE employers and directly benefited enrollment in more than five hundred institutions of higher education. Through a combination of scholarships, counseling to navigate the college process, and compensation incentives as they complete credit hours, many early childhood educators realized their dreams of obtaining postsecondary credentials.

Many states also have their own initiatives and networks to help individuals gain ECE certificates and degrees. The Tennessee Early Childhood Training Alliance (TECTA) provides tuition assistance toward ECE postsecondary credentials, focusing on students who already work at least part time in childcare programs. East Tennessee State University (ETSU), in Johnson City, has many TECTA funding recipients who transfer in from local community colleges to its ECE baccalaureate program. To help with the transition, the Department of Early Childhood Education also hired a full-time staff person to work with the community colleges and transfer students. This has made a huge difference in the retention and graduation rate in the ETSU program.

Similarly, Illinois offers many resources, financial and otherwise, to support individuals pursuing postsecondary ECE credentials. “It’s a good time to be in ECE higher education right now. There are unprecedented supports for ECE students and higher education programs,” says Carrie Nepstad of Harold Washington College. Her ECE program (and others across Illinois) has been able to hire success coaches, tutors, and recruiters for students. Funding also covers tuition and fees and provides student stipends. In addition, the state offers debt relief programs for early childhood educators.

College leadership also matters when it comes to creating a strong program. “Our president has a good relationship with our community, and our community prioritizes ECE,” says Pam Evanshen, chair of ETSU’s Department of Early Childhood Education. “He has seen directly the impact that the childcare shortage has on the community and understands the capacity of the university to be a meaningful partner.” In fact, in 2020, the regional health system Ballad Health and ETSU established the Strong Building Resilience through ACEs Informed Networking (BRAIN) Institute with a particular focus on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and ways to mitigate their impact so that there are better educational, social, health, and economic outcomes for the surrounding community. The ECE department is one of many disciplines within the university that contributes to and supports the work of the Strong BRAIN Institute.

Dallas College 2023 graduates of the ECE program( Dallas College)

Although such efforts by colleges and universities are addressing some of the immediate ECE workforce shortages, higher education needs to join forces with federal and state governments, ECE employers, philanthropy, the business community, and others to really move the needle. To galvanize this collective effort, in March 2020, NAEYC and fourteen other national ECE groups issued the Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Education Profession, a consensus road map for professionalizing the ECE workforce. The recommendations, made with input from more than ten thousand early childhood educators, include defining and standardizing the responsibilities, knowledge, and skills of early childhood educators; establishing professional preparation and licensure requirements; and offering guidelines for consistent and higher compensation. The Unifying Framework articulates a vision that “each and every child, beginning at birth, has the opportunity to benefit from high quality, affordable early childhood education, delivered by an effective, diverse, well-prepared, and well-compensated workforce.” It also identifies the responsibilities and infrastructure needed for a system that involves multiple stakeholders and funds and contributes to the profession.

For higher education, particularly, the Unifying Framework identifies the essential components for preparing a diverse and effective ECE workforce: having buy-in from presidents, provosts, and chancellors; access to financial resources and other supports for ECE students; investments in higher education programs themselves through adequate staffing, access to quality field-experience sites, and physical/IT resources needed for operating clinical professional preparation programs; curriculum aligned with the core competencies for the ECE profession; and investments in quality assurance through specialized professional accreditation.

Although addressing some of the challenges of the ECE field is within the capacity of individual institutions by reconsidering priorities and shifting resources, it is not on higher education alone to fix this. The federal government and state governments must make significant and sustained investments in ECE, including the profession that supports it. Higher education must also be part of the shift in recognizing early childhood education as not just good for the public but as a public good itself.

Lead photo: iStock/Onurdongel


  • Mary Harrill

    Mary Harrill

    Mary Harrill is the senior director for higher education at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.