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Why Early Childhood Advocates Should Care About College Costs

My friend Kevin Carey, writing in The New Republic, offers a bold and novel strategy to create new affordable higher education options for students and reign in the growth of college tuition--which has grown much more rapidly than inflation in recent decades.

This idea is in many ways a large scale version of the approach Kevin and I laid out last year to create new "charter colleges of early childhood education"--but while that proposal was focused primarily on developing cost-effective ways to improve the skills and knowledge of early childhood educators, Kevin's is about overhauling the entire higher education system for a world where it's increasingly necessary for all adults to acquire some sort of postsecondary training and credentials.

This gets to an area of confusion that we noticed a lot last year when talking to folks about our paper: Many people criticized the paper (and us) because they thought we were saying that early childhood educators don't need higher education credentials. But that's not really our argument at all. Instead, we're arguing that early childhood educators absolutely need robust postsecondary credentials--but that the existing higher education system is both too expensive and not-really well designed to provide those credentials. Rather than trying to push early childhood educators into a system that is itself becoming increasing unsustainable, we should capitalize on the public interest in promoting higher educational attainment for early childhood workers to develop new, more affordable, and better new types of higher education options that, because they're designed to meet the needs of early childhood workers, can also help model higher education options for a much more diverse pool of people who need to acquire postsecondary credentials.

Whether or not you agree with our ideas, people who care about improving early childhood education need to be deeply concerned about taming the growth in college tuitions, for at least two reasons. First, skyrocketing tuition makes it more difficult and costly to raise the higher educational credentials of the early childhood workforce. Second, unless we reign in college costs, there's a strong risk that public funding to support higher education affordability will wind up cannibalizing or squeezing out early childhood spending. That's because most policy efforts to date to improve college affordability have focused on providing increasing public funds to help students pay for college. But, with ever-rising college costs that outstrip inflation and government revenues, this strategy can sustain and expand access only if it consumes increasing shares of government revenue--witness the explosion in Pell grants over the past few years. These increasing costs for higher education programs make it more difficult to increase investments in early childhood--even though there's reason to think that spending on early childhood might ultimately be a better long-term investment to improve psotsecondary outcomes.

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