Leah Spangler

Leah Spangler

Student loan debt is crippling our newest generation in the workforce – especially those who majored in a lower-salary field such as early childhood education.

Some graduates are faced with the choice between paying for basic living expenses such as groceries and housing or making loan payments.

The increasing cost of college is much of the problem. 

In Pennsylvania, we have the third-most expensive state schools in the nation, with tuition rates that are 45 percent above the national average for state schools, according to the College Board. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Pennsylvania’s in-state tuition and fees at the end of the 2017-18 school year averaged $14,437, up 4 percent over the previous year, while the national average for state four-year campuses was $9,970. Only students in New Hampshire and Vermont pay more. 

Nationally, the picture is not much better. According to Forbes Magazine, the average graduate of the Class of 2016 had $37,172 in student loan debt, and many had much more.

Two state initiatives are aggressively addressing the issue, paving the way to debt-free college degrees for those who want to build a career in early childhood. These little-known programs have the power to transform the lives of young people, allowing them to earn a four-year degree with no student loans.

At The Learning Lamp, a leading child care provider in our region, we’re seeing the positive impact of these efforts every day. Through the T.E.A.C.H. (Teacher Education and Compensation Helps) Early Childhood Pennsylvania Scholarship Program, our employees are earning certificates, associate degrees and even bachelor degrees in early childhood education or child development without having to fork over their own hard-earned money. 

The scholarship program funds tuition and books, while participating employers such as The Learning Lamp commit to pay for some release time and other small expenses on behalf of students. While it takes a little longer for students to complete a degree, the benefit of graduating with no debt far outweighs the timeline. 

A secondary benefit is that the program helps stabilize the early childhood workforce, with people staying in jobs for longer periods of time. This improves quality of care for young children.

A second program will debut in our region shortly. An Early Childhood Apprenticeship Program led by the Somerset County Technology Center in partnership with The Learning Lamp will allow participants to “learn and earn.” 

The program, which is registered with the state Department of Labor and Industry, will offer nine college credits for on-the-job training, and another nine for completion of a Child Development Associate, a certificate credential. 

The result is 18 credits that can be applied toward an associate degree through Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. The first of its kind in the region, the program is based on the industry apprenticeship model, with apprentices taking classes and receiving mentoring and pay raises through the process.

While neither program offers the traditional on-campus college experience, and participants work while earning a degree, the trade off is well worth it. This is especially true for nontraditional students or students who want to build a career in early childhood or elementary education but have no idea how they will pay for college.

Leah Spangler is CEO of The Learning Lamp and Ignite Education Solutions.

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