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Child-Care Provider Offers Free Ride to College for Thousands of Employees

"This is an opportunity for me to fulfill a dream."

That's how Manuela Saldana describes the new initiative by her employer, Bright Horizons, which will pay for her to obtain a bachelor's degree in early-childhood education from a company-selected list of institutions.

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The private child-care and early-education provider announced its Early Education Degree Achievement Plan last month. It allows all of the company's roughly 20,000 full-time workers at around 800 centers across the country to pursue an associate or bachelor's degree free of charge. Workers will be eligible for the program on day one of their employment. After completing a degree, a worker will be required to work for Bright Horizons for 18 months, and someone who quits or is fired before 18 months would have to repay the cost. The program will be administered by EdAssist, a division of Bright Horizons that already provides tuition assistance and student loan repayment benefits.

"At Bright Horizons, our teachers are our most important asset, and so we are always looking for ways to make sure that we are meeting their needs and also supporting them in the best way that we can," Bright Horizons CEO Stephen Kramer said in an interview. 

Students in the program can pursue a degree from for-profit Ashford University, Rasmussen College, and Walden University, and the not-for-profit Northampton Community College near Bethlehem, Pa.

Saldana has worked for the company for four years at the Fitzsimons Early Learning Center in Aurora, Colo. She started out as a floater and then became a teacher's assistant before earning her Child Development Associate Credential and becoming a preschool teacher. Currently, she works as an administrative assistant.

Saldana had been taking courses toward her degree at a community college in Aurora but says that as a mother of two, working full-time, it was difficult. The 24-year-old says she also struggled to save enough money to cover her tuition.

Bright Horizons offers a tuition reimbursement program, but Kramer says there weren't that many teachers taking advantage of it partly because it was hard for them to come up with the money upfront.

In addition to covering tuition, Bright Horizons will also pay for books and any fees associated with earning a degree. Students will also be supported by an education advisor who will help them select the appropriate school and degree to meet their goals.

Critics Raise Concerns

This program comes as more states are increasing the requirements to become an early-childhood educator in the hopes of improving the outcomes for students.

But Lea Austin, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, said that while it's important to help early-childhood educators pursue higher education, she questions one key aspect of the Bright Horizons program, its affiliation with the for-profit sector.

"I have some concerns about the viability of the degrees that people will be earning and how portable those will be as people go throughout their careers," said Austin.

Through email, representatives from Walden University, Rasmussen College, and Ashford University said their institutions were particularly well-suited to serving nontraditional students like the Bright Horizons workers.

"The college knows how to serve an adult student," wrote Mary Muhs, the Rasmussen College early childhood education department chair. "Our flexible course options, which include self-paced, competency-based education courses, give students greater control in balancing work, life, and college."

She said that Rasmussen is a regionally accredited private college and said that it provides "career-focused and market-relevant educational programs that serve a diverse learner population and prepare students to be successful in an ever-changing workforce."

A spokeswoman for Walden University noted that the school's Riley College of Education and Leadership is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation and that its early-childhood education program is aligned with the professional standards of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC.

"We're pleased to enter into this arrangement with Bright Horizons for enrollment in our competency-based early-childhood education program, which provides students with the opportunity to progress at a pace determined in part by their own capacity to meet each required competency," wrote Debra Epstein, the head of communications for Walden University. "This provides students with the possibility of completing their degrees more quickly and possibly at lower cost."

Ashford University and its parent company, Bridgepoint Education, are facing a lawsuit by the California attorney general. That suit accuses school employees of enticing students to enroll "using false promises and faulty information." But the school denies those claims.

"We emphatically deny the allegations made by the California AG that we ever deliberately misled our students, falsely advertised our programs, or in any way were not fully accurate in our statements to investors," wrote Lauren Coartney, Bridgepoint's senior manager for social media and public relations. "Those allegations are demonstrably false. We are committed to complying with all state and federal regulations—and to doing the right thing for our students."

For his part, Kramer of Bright Horizons says the fact that three of his higher-education partners are for-profit institutions is not concerning.

"The financial structure of an institution does not drive the quality of instruction for that institution," said Kramer.

All of the schools were required to allow students to complete externships at Bright Horizons centers and to offer degrees that could be earned fully online.

Kramer says all of the schools went through a rigorous screening process, and the starting point was NAEYC.

"We are strong supporters of NAEYC," said Kramer. "We wanted to make sure that any of the schools that we partnered with were either aligned with NAEYC, accredited by NAEYC, or recognized by NAEYC. For us, that was an important initial screen around program quality."

Although Kramer says the program will cost the company "multi-million" dollars per year, he says he looks at it as "an investment rather than an expense."

So far, he says, about 1,000 employees have expressed interest.

Saldana has already talked with a Bright Horizons educational adviser and plans to enroll in Ashford University's online early-childhood education administration program.

"It was a very empowering moment to know that I am one day going to hold a bachelor's degree in early-childhood education thanks to Bright Horizons," Saldana said.

Image by Getty


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