Many early childhood educators will see their debt forgiven under Biden’s plan. But how much will that help?

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BriAnne Moline’s journey through higher education is not unlike that of millions of other students in the United States. After graduating with an associate’s degree in early childhood education, she slowly moved on to a bachelor’s degree for eight years as well, taking more classes. when his life permitted and receded when disturbances such as family illness intervened.

Now, she has about a year left until she graduates. 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 forgiven under the Biden administration’s recently announced loan forgiveness program, which plans to forgive up to $10,000 of debt for borrowers with annual income below $125,000 and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients with 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 debt relief. And that’s good news for them, because their field rarely pays its educators enough to make ends meet, let alone repay borrowed funds.

The early childhood education landscape in the United States is fragmented, and credential requirements vary widely. In most states, post-secondary degrees aren’t required to become an early childhood educator, says Mary Harrill, senior director of higher education accreditation and program support for the National Association for Education. of Young Children (NAEYC), a national nonprofit and research organization. .

Still, a number of states require post-secondary courses. And many programs have their own credentialing requirements, including the federal Head Start program, which, among other things, requires key teachers to have a bachelor’s degree. And requirements aside, many adults who pursue careers working with young children pursue higher education anyway. This is because they consider the demands (along with the respect and pay) of the field to fall far short of what current research suggests is necessary to provide children with high quality care and education. .

“We know the science really shows that early childhood educators have skills, abilities and knowledge” in their field, Harrill says. “We want early childhood educators to have post-secondary education. Many early childhood educators recognize the importance of this and how it strengthens children, but many cannot afford it right now.

Moline can attest to this and feels that it prevents some of his peers from entering the field and prevents others who are already in the field from honing their skills.

“The cost of higher education is a very big deterrent to many current and potential early childhood educators,” says Moline.

Go into debt to become a better educator

Moline entered the early childhood field after the birth of her first child. The Montana-based educator wanted to be a good parent and provide her son with a research-based education that followed best practices. Along the way, she ended up taking a job as a health care aide at a local daycare center in Missoula, where she lives. She discovered that she was very interested in child development and enrolled in a nearby public four-year college to begin working toward her associate’s degree. She wanted to reinforce her continued work in early childhood with the kinds of professional preparation she felt could only be obtained with higher education.

It was 2009. At the time, Moline was a single mother who worked full time and went to school on the side when she could. “To make ends meet, I had to take out loans,” she says, noting that she spent her money on rent, books and childcare, and contributed to a modest savings account. savings in case her car breaks down or she has another emergency.

Once she graduated with an associate’s degree, in 2014, she moved on, pursuing her bachelor’s degree. Her experience so far had been in central care settings, but a professor encouraged her to start her own home-based program. She opened it in March 2017 and still runs it today.

Technically speaking, a bachelor’s degree isn’t required for what Moline is doing now or what she aspires to do in her early childhood career. “There is no salary increase per se. No financial benefit,” she notes. But that was never really what it was about for her. Moline wants to make sure she provides the best care for the children in her care, and she believes higher education is the way to do that.

“I’m looking forward to it and I know the best practices are for early childhood educators with a bachelor’s degree,” she says. “I try to be a leader in my state, to lead by example.”

It is also significant for Moline as she was the first person in her family to earn an associate degree and will be the first to earn her bachelor’s degree. She wants to show her four sons that this is also something they can achieve.

Under the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness program and as a recipient of the Pell grant, Moline expects $20,000 of his total debt to be forgiven. It won’t wipe out his entire balance – more like a third – but it’s something.

Natalie Williams, director of education at the Miami Children’s Museum in Florida, has a combination of student loan debt from her undergraduate program and two master’s programs. All in all, she’s looking at more than a six-figure balance.

Most of Williams’ debt stems from her first master’s degree, which she got about a decade ago in order to take a job with Bright Horizons, the largest sponsored childcare provider. by the employer in the country and what Williams describes as the “leading” child care organization at the time. To work there in the role she was interested in, she says she either had to be enrolled in a master’s program or already have the degree. So she signed up.

The Biden administration’s agenda will help her, she says, but not much.

“It’s a start,” Williams said. “It doesn’t seem significant at all. But it’s definitely a start.

“Educators must be educated”

While many early childhood educators hold post-secondary degrees and recognize the value of being in the field with certain credentials, they also see how the cost of higher education is out of balance with their own potential future earnings. .

The reality is that the return on investment for early childhood educators who have or are pursuing post-secondary education is dismal. It is not uncommon for educators in the field, whether they have a high school diploma or a master’s degree, to earn poverty wages. Almost half receive some kind of public assistance because their salaries are so low that they qualify and depend on it.

“They want that professional preparation. But that’s in direct conflict” with the way our early childhood system works, Harrill says, noting that early childhood educators don’t often earn a living wage. “It is 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 run her program for 30 years. She started graduate school in 2006 when “everything about early childhood was starting to change” and she felt a degree requirement was coming.

“The children were changing. The regulations changed. Norms were changing,” she says. “To offer the best I could offer with the best possible quality, I went ahead and started the school career.”

She believes that the degrees she obtained – a bachelor’s degree in 2011 and a master’s degree in 2013 – have made a difference.

Briggs’ program has earned the highest quality rating in Pennsylvania, a Keystone STARS 4. And she knows kids leave her program “over-prepared” for kindergarten. These quality markers were more than pride and self-confidence. Briggs believes this has helped his program’s longevity, although many, including home-based programs like his, have struggled and closed.

However, at 62, she prefers to think about retirement rather than the debt that still hangs over her head.

She earned her master’s degree with just under $60,000 in student loans. Almost 10 years later, despite her regular monthly payments, even during the pandemic, she says, “I really didn’t do anything wrong.

Briggs follows an income-based repayment plan that allows her to pay just $150 a month, instead of $650. And while she can’t imagine ever paying them in full, she doesn’t regret getting the degrees.

“I believe that educators need to be educated,” she says. “Studies show that early childhood development is constantly changing. The more we know, the more we are able to give.

She adds: “When I arrived, the main thing was to make sure the kids were clean and knew their AB-Cs and 1-2-3s. We are way beyond that now. She named social-emotional learning, diversity and inclusion, changing programs and norms, and family engagement as some of the areas she should be familiar with now.

Instead of expecting less from early childhood educators, Briggs says, the public needs to do more.

“We really need to do better for educators, those caring for the youngest children, at the most precious time in a child’s life,” she says. “Those who manage this most precious age are not compensated or recognized in this way.”

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