Making Connections: What Will It Take to Gain Status in Higher Education?
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Last spring, through the generous support of the W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation, I interviewed more than 30 higher education executives in systems and states across the country. The interviewees included chancellors, presidents, vice presidents, and deans of university and college systems as well as chief executives at Washington, DC-based higher education policy organizations. The intent of the interviews was twofold: to gain a better understanding of the status of early childhood education degree programs and to identify what these leaders see as the key factors needed to drive the funding, demand for, and recognition of the programs’ importance at both the associate and baccalaureate degree level.
These conversations sit within the context of the implementation of the Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Education Profession, as aligned, accessible, streamlined, and subsidized postsecondary degrees are key to the success of creating a professional field of practice. The full report from the interviews will soon be available on NAEYC’s website, but following are a few of my key takeaways.
- Early childhood education is critical. There is widespread agreement that a professional field of practice must include postsecondary degrees for early childhood educators. The two primary drivers for support are the decisive science of early learning and the role high-quality early childhood education can play in altering the current structural biases and racial inequities that create early gaps in learning and development.
- Poverty-level wages are the biggest barrier. Though the moral imperative is clear, it is impractical for higher education to invest in early childhood education degrees when graduates have little hope of professional salaries, health insurance, and retirement benefits. Related, the availability of research dollars in baccalaureate and graduate degree institutions is a primary way colleges and universities drive faculty recruitment and gain visibility for their programs. Research dollars in early childhood education, compared with other degree programs, are very limited.
- Community colleges are key to the postsecondary pipeline. Many early childhood educators begin their postsecondary education at the associate degree level. Where states and college systems have mandatory articulation in place and strong partnerships with bachelor’s degree programs, it makes a difference. Community colleges have also been leaders in developing comprehensive wraparound supports—such as tutoring, high-touch advising, and technology assistance—that address the needs of many early childhood students and help them successfully complete their programs.
- Institutions of higher education invest when states and the federal government invest. When postsecondary institutions see their states and communities investing in early childhood education, they see an increase in the demand for and the status of early childhood education degree programs. Examples include public preschool initiatives, federal investments in child care, private-sector businesses increasing their demand for child care, and philanthropy making community-based investments that drive the need for more highly qualified, higher compensated early childhood educators.
- Leadership always matters. It takes a visionary person who fully understands the benefits and system complexities of early childhood education to propel the visibility, notoriety, and investments in these degree programs. In every instance where a top administrator makes early childhood education an agenda, the change and investments are dramatic.
- Professional accreditation will move quality. Professional accreditation of degree programs creates status and recognition, gives students assurance that there is a level of quality, and compels faculty and program leaders to align their coursework to the full depth and breadth of the profession’s standards and competencies. (A cautionary note is accreditation systems that promote a “check the box” approach rather than a behavioral shift in programs.)
At their core, colleges and universities exist to improve the human condition. Because we share a moral imperative for all children to have equitable access to developmentally appropriate, high-quality early childhood education, we must ensure that early childhood education degree programs have a floor of quality. This includes a sufficient number of full-time faculty who are equipped with the right knowledge, skills, competencies, and resources to offer a comprehensive curriculum.
We must ensure that early childhood education degree programs have a floor of quality.
Essential to the curriculum is access to high-quality field experiences so that students are well-prepared in the Professional Standards and Competencies for Early Childhood Educators. Likewise, we must work toward guaranteeing that any early childhood educator seeking a postsecondary degree can graduate debt-free and with the expectation that they will have a lifetime career with a professional salary, health insurance, and retirement benefits.
Copyright © 2021 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Rhian Evans Allvin is the chief executive officer of NAEYC. She is responsible for guiding the strategic direction of the organization as well as overseeing daily operations. Before joining NAEYC, Evans Allvin was a guiding force in Arizona’s early childhood movement for more than 15 years, including serving as CEO of Arizona's First Things First.