Student loans and the affordability of higher education have become hot issues this election year. For early educators returning to school, as for many college students, paying for higher education remains a barrier. The fact that the early childhood field is characterized by low wages, even for those who earn additional educational credentials, only exacerbates the problem. A report from the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children – “An Early Educator’s Dilemma: Balancing Educational Aspirations & Student Loan Burden” – examines the issue.
The report, issued in partnership with Boston EQUIP, outlines several paths early educators can use to reduce the cost of pursuing college degrees: the Massachusetts Early Childhood Educators Scholarship, federal Perkins loan cancellation, public service loan forgiveness, deferment and forbearance, and income-based and income-contingent repayment plans.
EQUIP and Bessie Tartt convened four focus groups and surveyed early educators across the state. Of the 395 early educators who completed the survey, almost half had a bachelor’s degree, a reflection, the report notes, of the fact that program directors and education coordinators comprised about one-third for the survey sample.
Among the report’s findings:
- Almost one-third of respondents were enrolled in a degree program or classes at the time of the survey.
- Roughly half said they were not enrolled in classes but intended or wanted to further their education.
- Roughly half said they – or their parents – had taken out federal or other publicly financed loans to help pay for higher education.
- Of those with student loans, 32% said their loans were delinquent or in default – or they did not know the status of their loans.
- Of those with loans, 29% were unaware of ways they could reduce or manage their debt load.
As employed, adult learners, with jobs and family responsibilities, early educators face additional barriers that traditional students, fresh out of high school, typically do not.
“I would love to further my education,” one focus group participant told researchers. “The problem is I currently have a child in college and will have another entering college next fall and another two years after that. They are my first priority, so that leaves very little money left for me.”
The report calls for better information and more financial support for early educators returning to school.
“Early educators have been tasked with providing high-quality care, and for many, this means advancing their education through degrees and professional training,” the report concludes. “For so many in the field, this leads to student loans and the burden of debt. Educators deserve to have clear information, adequate financial support, and career incentives to pursue higher education. Only then will the field retain passionate and qualified teachers to shape the lives of young children. Additional initiatives to increase the affordability of higher education of early educators are necessary and may take the form of scholarships or loan forgiveness programs, as well as educational campaigns to show early educators how to navigate the complex financial aid system that already exists.”