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In a discussion today, someone mentioned the need to phase out any academic programs that don’t lead to “family-sustaining wages.” The argument was that it’s unethical to ask students of modest means to borrow money to pay for a degree that leads to a job that likely won’t pay enough to both live on and pay back the loans.

There’s a simplicity to the argument that can be initially compelling. But I couldn’t stop thinking about early-childhood education.

Many community colleges have programs that train students to work with young children. It’s obviously important work, and working with young children professionally requires much more than just the briefing that parents give babysitters before a night out. The loss of good daycare, I suspect, is behind much of the drop-off in women’s labor force participation during the pandemic. Good childcare is a real social need. But the people who work in childcare are often paid terribly.

The math of privatized childcare is difficult. Very young children need really low teacher/student ratios. The parents of very young children typically aren’t in their peak earning years yet; often, they’re just getting started. So you have small numbers of parents for each care worker, and most of those parents are still in the dues-paying years of their careers. When TB was in daycare, the tuition we paid per year was more than the tuition for in-state students at Rutgers. And there’s no financial aid for daycare. When TG came along, we realized that TW’s entire salary would have gone to daycare; we just didn’t see the point.

From a pure student salary perspective, the argument for shutting down early-childhood education programs is nearly a no-brainer. But from a social good perspective, shutting down early-childhood programs would be somewhere between obtuse and monstrous.

It shouldn’t surprise longtime readers to learn that I’d be happy to see early-childhood care subsidized at significant levels. If it’s politically easier to do that through direct payments to parents—so stay-at-home parents benefit, too—that’s fine. If the workers who provide care for young children were paid reasonably well, then there would be no ethical conflict in training students for those jobs. But a change of that level is far beyond what a single college can enact. Our students have to find jobs in the world that actually exists.

Someone suggested building some entrepreneurship training into early-childhood programs, on the theory that the students could learn how to open their own daycare centers. There’s some merit to that, but it still relies on underpaying the folks in the trenches.

Free community college helps, to the extent that it reduces the amount that students will have to pay back. (Even with free tuition, of course, they still have living expenses while they’re in college. But taking tuition down to zero would certainly reduce the amount they’d have to borrow, and therefore the amount they’d have to pay back.) But even with that, we’d still be asking students to spend years getting a degree that pays the same or less than many jobs they could get without ever setting foot in college.

Wise and worldly readers, is there an ethically sound way to resolve this dilemma? I don’t want to lead students into careers that are economically disastrous, but I also don’t want to abandon early-childhood education. Young children need, and deserve, environments in which they can thrive. Parents often need daycare in order to work. Yes, sometimes there’s a good stay-at-home parental option, but that’s harder to pull off than it used to be. Extended families are sometimes an option, but often not, and certainly not full-time. This isn’t a conflict we can just wish away or resolve by conjuring up a romanticized past. This is a hard one.

Any ideas out there?

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