Community colleges play a vital role in our nation’s education and workforce training systems: Roughly 38 percent of all undergraduate students are enrolled in two-year institutions, and 49 percent of college graduates spend at least some time in community college before earning their degrees. Often historically overlooked, the important role community colleges play in providing access to higher education and training – particularly for low-income and non-traditional students – has received increased attention in recent years. But here’s something you may not know: Community colleges also play a crucial role in shaping the education of our nation’s littlest learners.
That’s not because precocious toddlers are enrolling in droves in our nation’s two-year colleges. Rather, these institutions play a vital role in providing education and training for teachers and caregivers who work with young children. The majority of early childhood degree programs in the United States are located in two-year institutions, and three-quarters of community colleges nationally offer some type of early childhood or child development program. And in addition to degree granting programs, community colleges also play a key role in providing workforce training and professional development for early childhood workers.
The affordability and accessibility of community colleges makes them an attractive option for early childhood workers who have full-time jobs, often earn low wages and often have families of their own. Yet the same factors that lead early childhood workers to choose community colleges can also create challenges to their success in them. Even modest tuition can be a struggle for childcare workers who earn, on average, just $9.77 an hour. Those who are returning to school after years in the workforce, or whose native language is not English, may need to take developmental or English-language courses before they can enroll in credit bearing early childhood coursework. And early childhood workers who take just one course at a time, or drift in and out of higher education due to work and family obligations, may struggle to assemble courses in a coherent sequence, or find themselves enrolled in courses that don’t ultimately contribute to reaching their career and professional goals.
Supports like dedicated advising, flexible course scheduling and offering courses in languages other than English can help mitigate these barriers and support early childhood workers to earn degrees, as can innovative models for rethinking remedial course work and combining developmental and early childhood courses.
But many community college early childhood programs lack the staff capacity and resources to provide this support. And, perversely, state and federal higher education policy initiatives intended to hold postsecondary education institutions accountable for how they serve students and taxpayers may actually create disincentives for community college leaders to invest in early childhood and other programs that prepare graduates for socially important but undercompensated jobs. Perhaps most troubling, there is very little research or evidence on the quality of community colleges early childhood preparation programs or their impact on students’ teaching abilities. There are surely some community colleges that do an excellent job of preparing both current and future early childhood educators – but research by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment and others suggests that coursework, clinical experiences and faculty qualifications often vary widely across institutions (as is also true for 4-year college early childhood programs).
We can do better. As my colleague Marnie Kaplan shows in a new paper, community colleges across the country are implementing innovative supports, advising structures and initiatives to help early childhood educators succeed in community college coursework. Institutions and states are putting in place higher education articulation policies that ensure community college graduates can go on to earn 4-year degrees. And states, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations and community colleges themselves are providing dedicated scholarships and financial aid for early childhood educators pursuing higher education. Yet none of these practices are sufficiently widespread to meet the needs in the field.
Proposals to require more early childhood educators to hold a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood education are the subject of heated debates. But the reality is that most early childhood educators in the United States do not have a bachelor’s degree, and even if bachelor’s degrees do become the norm for lead teachers in some early childhood settings, numerous positions that directly influence young children’s learning, such as the teaching assistants present in virtually all center- and school-based early childhood classrooms, will not require such credentials. But many states do require early childhood educators to complete at least some specialized postsecondary training (often far less than an associate’s degree) to hold various roles in licensed childcare or preschool programs. Early childhood educators often earn these credits at community colleges. And well-designed policies and supports can help these courses become an on-ramp to further learning and degrees.
As such, community college early childhood programs have the potential to be a powerful tool in boosting the skills and knowledge of early childhood workers. But only if we give them the attention and resources they deserve.