Some childcare workers can get their college loans forgiven — but many are blocked
'I’ll probably have to work until 102 to pay them off'
Adrienne Briggs has $55,000 in student loans. Each month, she pays $150 toward the debt.
Briggs runs a small child care center out of her home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she’s been caring for children for 30 years.
“I am 62 years old and should be looking toward retirement,” Briggs said. But with loans to pay, she doesn’t think that will happen. She kept chipping away at the loans, even during the suspension of federal student loan payments intended to provide relief during the pandemic. But that extra effort barely brought the debt down.
“I’ll probably have to work until 102 to pay them off,” she said.
The federal Department of Education allows child care providers to participate in its Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but only if they work in a nonprofit or federally run child care center, like Head Start, for 10 years. That leaves child care workers who are employed by for-profit centers and self-employed providers who run in-home centers, like Briggs, out in the cold.
Similar rules apply to teachers, who qualify for loan forgiveness if they work for a public school or a nonprofit school. However, teachers who work for private schools typically qualify because most of these schools are nonprofit organizations — unlike private child care.
But those child care workers are offering a public service as well, argues Home Grown, an organization that fundraises and advocates for in-home child care centers.
“What the field is calling for is clarification that early childhood employers and those working in early childhood centers that are for-profit should also be eligible and not required to also prove a nonprofit status in order to receive loan forgiveness,” said Alexandra Patterson, Home Grown’s director of policy and strategy. It’s an argument that the organization made recently to the U.S. Department of Education, which solicited public input this summer on how to improve its loan forgiveness program.
The Biden administration announced on Wednesday that Pell Grant recipients will be offered $20,000 in loan debt forgiveness, with $10,000 cancelled for other borrowers. The loan forgiveness will be subject to income restrictions. The administration also announced it will extend a pause on loan payments through the end of the year.
Nearly 1 in 5 child care workers have student loan debt, according to a Stanford University survey of 802 providers across the United States. That rate is about the same as the share of adults in the U.S. with student loan debt, said Cristi Carman, program manager of the RAPID survey at Stanford University.
“What we know about the childcare workforce is that they are dramatically underpaid, they have limited access to benefits, and they have an increasing … instability in their employment,” Carman said. “And many in our survey told us they have multiple jobs.”
On average, child care workers made $11.65 an hour in 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. Those with a bachelor’s degree who worked in private centers earned a median of $15.41 per hour.
Briggs had a high school diploma when she started watching children out of her home, but over the years, she started going after advanced degrees: first a child care certification, then an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree and finally, in 2013, she received her master’s degree.
“With each level, I was learning more and more, and realized there was still so much more to learn about children and families and child care,” Briggs said. “And of course, over the years, all of this has been changing. So, with the constant changes, [there] was a need for constant knowledge.”
For Briggs, who offers a preschool program for toddlers, getting her master’s degree was about making her in-home program the best it could be. Her business, Lil’ Bits Family Child Care Home, has the highest ranking in Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS program for rating providers.
“I did this for my business and for the children and their families, to be able to offer the best that I could possibly offer,” Briggs said. “I honestly did not think about the debt end of it at the time that I was trying to better my program.”
Briggs’ income has not gone up with her education level — she said she makes about $30,000 per year, depending on how many children are enrolled in her program, which is capped at six. Because of this, she receives a reduced rate to repay her student loans at $150 instead of the $600 per month she would have been paying if her income were higher. But the amount she pays each month barely covers the interest.
“This is just a huge debt over me that I see no end to,” Briggs said.
BriAnne Moline is in a similar situation. She started as a janitor in a child care center 15 years ago, before being hired as a child care provider. She enrolled in an associate degree program for early childhood in 2009 and completed it a few years later. When financial difficulties forced the center she worked at to shut down unexpectedly, Moline enrolled in an online bachelor’s degree program. At the same time, she decided to open her own child care program at her home in Missoula, Montana.
That was five years ago. Now, Moline enrolls 22 children at her in-home, group child care center. She is set to graduate with her bachelor’s degree next summer, and has about $60,000 in student loan debt.
Because of those loans, she hasn’t been able to buy a house; instead, she runs her center from her rented home, a situation that often comes with challenges of its own.
“I have tried to apply for housing loans and things like that just to make my children’s future and my business’ future more stable, and I’m always disqualified because of those student loans,” Moline said.
Student loan debt is just one challenge providers face in an industry in the midst of collapse, said Annie Dade, a policy analyst for the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. The industry’s challenges have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic: A jobs tracker developed by the CSCCE shows that, as of July, child care employment was 8.4 percent lower than it was before the pandemic.
Faced with a shortage of child care workers, states have cobbled together a hodgepodge of changes designed to address different facets of the problem, from raising classroom ratios to lowering the age of child care employees. Those solutions are not only dangerous, Dade said, but are unlikely to help the industry in the long run. Without significant investment, the child care market will continue to collapse.
“For those who have been studying the field for a while and understanding the issues that affect the workforce, it’s coming at no surprise because of how low wages fuel high turnover and make it really hard for folks to stay,” Dade said.
Even if all child care providers were allowed to participate in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, Patterson said, it’s unlikely that program alone would transform the workforce. But it would be a huge relief to the workers who are already working in child care and dealing with low wages and few benefits, she said.
“This is an opportunity to provide relief to the early workforce, but we are also consistent in saying that there needs to be additional investment in the sector,” Patterson said.
This story about public service loan forgiveness was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.