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Is early childhood education a viable career option for community college students?

As the importance of early childhood education has become a rare bipartisan agreement in recent years, many early educators still make less than a living wage. Early childhood educator programs across the community college system have declined in enrollment, and efforts to increase education requirements for early educators have stalled.

“You have individuals coming to school getting a degree still making wages that are just below or at poverty level,” David Shockley, president of Surry Community College, said in a follow-up interview after the community college Presidents’ Academy last week, where leaders of the state’s 58 colleges were encouraged to think about the programs their schools offer and how they can increase economic mobility for their students.

“Now you’ve got a student that comes in, and say they take out student loans. Now they’re going into debt over a career that does not financially move them upward. It starts to create an ethical dilemma.”

Shockley said he struggles to point students looking for economic mobility to early childhood education certificates or degrees. He said he knows that high-quality early childhood programs are crucial for student success — and that investment in the earliest years of children’s lives has high returns for communities.

“The economic value is not measuring up to the social value,” Shockley said. “And everybody espouses how important [early childhood education] is, and I don’t know if anyone would argue any different, but at the end of the day, very little has changed to move those salaries up.” 

In North Carolina, the median hourly wage for preschool teachers is $12.66, according to May 2018 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Bureau defines “preschool teachers” as those instructing and using curricula on preschool-age children. For child care workers, which includes tasks like “dressing, feeding, bathing, and overseeing play” in its definition, the state’s hourly median wage is $10.35. 

According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology research, the living wage for North Carolina in 2018 for one adult without children was $11.79 per hour. For one adult and one child, the living wage was $23.89 — more than double the state’s hourly median wage for child care workers.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education leaves North Carolina graduates with an annual median salary of $37,000. Bachelor’s or associate degrees are at times required by a child care center depending on requirements from individual programs like NC Pre-K and Head Start or the center’s star level

The only education required by the state to be a lead child care teacher is one community college entry-level course: EDU 119: “Intro to Early Childhood Education.” Lisa Eads, director of academic programs at the community college system office, said there are equivalent high school courses that students can take to start working in the field. An individual can start working in the center without this credential as long as he or she enrolls in the course within six months and completes it within 18 months.

Efforts to increase the minimum requirements in the field have not led to changes in more than 20 years.

“I don’t know of any other field of study in the community college system that has worked any harder than that group to change this,” Shockley said of the early childhood faculty across community colleges and the broader advocacy community.

An early childhood educator workforce bill passed the House this legislative session but stalled in a conference committee. House Bill 882 would have raised the minimum requirement for lead child care teachers from one course to the completion of an infant-toddler or preschool certificate from a community college.

The bill also would have directed the state to create a program that incentivizes centers to hire teachers with more education and pay teachers more. The program would have given “subsidy payment enhancements to child care programs that use a salary scale and only employ lead teachers who have obtained a minimum of an associate degree in child development or a related field.”

Without a method such as the one in the bill that encourages higher compensation, requiring more education is often a lot to ask. Child Care Services Association vice president of professional development initiatives Edith Locke said the Association’s T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Scholarship Program was created in 1990 to support individuals in the industry looking to further their education.

“Many of them are single parents heading up their own households and when you start looking at the hierarchy of needs, trying to fund education is a significant impossibility,” Locke said. “It’s a huge challenge. Regardless of how intentional or how passionate the individual may be, if there’s no money out of the household to fund it, there is no money out of the household to fund it.”

Locke said the program’s scholarships, which reach around 2,000 individuals each year, are based on five components: scholarship, education, compensation, commitment, and counseling. That means the Association works with the employer to ensure recipients receive a raise or bonus after completing higher education. In turn, the recipient must commit to staying at the center for a specific amount of time depending on the scholarship. The counseling aspect, Locke said, is staffed by individuals who have worked in the field who can guide recipients on course selection and career options.

Last month, the Association started a scholarship around preschool and infant-toddler certificates — the same certificates that were going to be the new minimum requirement if the workforce bill became law. Locke said the coursework to earn those certificates is around 16-19 credit hours and is embedded within the associate degree in early childhood education. 

“Not everyone has a long-term goal of earning the associate degree, because when you’re working full time, it can take several years to do,” she said. “The certificate program, let’s show that it is digestible, that you can really earn that certificate without having to go all the way and earn an associate degree… We didn’t want the cost of earning the certificate to be a roadblock or a deterrent.”

Locke said some of their scholarships also work to attract young people into the profession. Eads said enrollment in the early childhood associate degree has had one of the starkest declines of all programs across the community college system in recent years. The community college system created new articulation degrees for students interested in transferring to four-year universities in hopes of making the track more seamless and attractive. But Eads said students wonder: “Why should I go back to school to get additional coursework if I’m going to earn the same money that I’m earning now with one course?”

Eads said students who do complete degrees often get different jobs that pay better. Parents who are already paying for expensive child care fear higher costs if educator compensation increases, she said. 

“It’s a real delicate situation,” Eads said. “What’s going to be the lever? Are we going to increase education levels and hope that the salary comes along with it? Or does it need to happen at the same time? Or do we need to increase salaries to go back to school to get more education?”

The declining enrollment in this program impacts the entire workforce, Eads said.

“The bigger concern is we can’t support the demand for the workforce if we don’t have students coming through the program,” she said. “So if folks are needing someone with credentials, and we’re not producing enough students that have credentials, then employers can not find people qualified to hire… Parents don’t have child care if I can’t get folks qualified to be employed.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.