UW’s online early learning degree cheaper, but not better for graduates

john burbank

John Burbank, EOI Executive Director

This spring the University of Washington announced with great fanfare its newest bachelor’s degree program. Joining in the chorus of support for early learning, UW has developed an on-line degree in early childhood education. This will prepare “individuals to work in early learning and child care…”

It seems like a good thing, and one in line with the current promotion of early learning among opinion-leaders, business leaders, and elected officials. We have a state government that espouses the value of high quality early learning, businesses that have gotten together to form the Business Partnership for Early Learning, study tours of early learning practices in other countries, legislators who continually promote early learning, foundations which fund early learning initiatives, and our own state Department of Early Learning. UW’s new degree program fits right in.

And yet, there is something fishy about the entire promotion. First of all, it is almost entirely on-line. That means not much personal professor/student interaction.  Is that the sort of practice we want the graduates of this program to emulate when they are teaching and caring for young children? Do we want young kids immersed in the real world, with real people, real frustrations, real problems with working out whose turn it is, and real triumphs when you build a sand castle, or do we want these kids to be participants in the virtual world…. Because that is where this pedagogy is going – away from actual teachers and professors and into video screens. If we don’t want that to happen, then why are we using virtual teaching for an undergraduate degree? Shouldn’t we practice what we preach?

The main reason I can figure out why the focus is on-line education is because it is cheaper. Note, not better, not more rigorous, not more creative, nor more demanding. Just cheaper. How cheap? $7,000 a year and geared to track upward each year. Think about that. $7,000 was what tuition was for all students just four years ago. So what is being trumpeted now for early learning degrees is more expensive than tuition students paid for any degree in 2007-08.

Now compare that $7,000 a year to the typical early learning teacher’s salary of less than $23,000. This is a two-year program, so that’s a bill for $14,000. All at once, tuition (not including fees, or room and board), is close to two-thirds of a teachers’ annual compensation.

What’s more, no public funds are being used to support this program, unlike other undergraduate majors. So corporations cheer for early learning, but they don’t want to sacrifice their tax loopholes to fund it. We have a state government that has set up a superstructure for early learning, through the Department of Early Learning. But the state isn’t contributing one penny to fund these BA’s for early learning. What early learning teachers and caregivers, and the kids for whom they care, and the families of these kids, what all these people get is a rhetorical pat-on-the-back for high quality early learning, as if you can achieve it by charging high and increasing tuition to students who will become early learning teachers, who will earn their way into poverty.

No public funding, lousy wages, high tuition, no career ladder, falling compensation, no future. That’s the back story to the new degree at the UW for early learning. Don’t be fooled.

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