The early years are crucial for child development. In fact, a 2018 Harvard study found children who attended high-quality early childhood education (ECE) programs were more likely to finish high school and less likely to be held back or placed in special education programs throughout their formative years.
Studies like this have led many states to invest heavily in early childhood education, with 43 states now offering public preschool programs. What's more, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that preschool enrollment has increased 20 percent and kindergarten enrollment is up by about 30 percent since the turn of the millennium.
That extra public sector focus and increased overall enrollment can mean an array of job opportunities for those who want to work with young children. With a degree from a campus-based or online early childhood education program, you can learn the skills you need to excel in teaching, administrating or creating programs and policy for early childhood schools.
Hundreds of schools around the country offer early childhood education degrees, so you'll likely have your pick of education destinations. In California alone, universities and community colleges offer a total of nearly 200 early childhood education programs at the associate degree level, as well as around 50 bachelor's programs and 30 graduate and post-graduate plans.
A bachelor's degree is the most common level of education in the field, although administrators and other leadership positions may require a master's degree or higher. Online early childhood education programs may be available at some institutions, particularly at the graduate level. If you're interested in working with children as a career, keep reading to learn more about some top schools, career opportunities at various degree levels and financial aid options for early childhood education students.
Best Colleges for Early Childhood Education Degree Programs 2019-20
The best colleges for early childhood education degrees aren't necessarily the biggest names in higher education. Our methodology focused on schools that offer at least one undergraduate degree in early childhood education and considered variables like affordability, student success, institutional academic support spending and the availability of online, weekend and evening degrees. Check out our top schools below.
Florida International University is one of the anchor institutions in South Florida and the only public research university operating in the Miami-Dade area. It's also one of the larger institutions on our list, boasting a student body of nearly 58,000 learners per semester in 2018. A bonus for students is that once a year, FIU also plays host to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, one of the largest gatherings of its kind in the U.S.
Early childhood education programs at FIU: Four ECE degrees are offered here, including teaching-focused programs at both the Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and Master of Science (M.S.) levels. A fully online degree in early childhood development is available as well, and a study abroad program to Trento, Italy, allows ECE students gain an international perspective.
Just two other schools on our list had a higher graduation rate than the University of Central Florida, which is an even more impressive feat when you consider the size of its student population. UCF has the largest student body of any individual campus on our list, reporting total enrollment of more than 68,000 to the NCES, and over 85 percent of its student body are pursuing undergraduate degrees.
Early childhood education programs at UCF: The bachelor's degree in early childhood development and education at UCF features two tracks -- classroom teaching from pre-kindergarten to primary school (PK-3) and early childhood development -- and offers an undergraduate ECE minor for students in other fields. M.S. and Ph.D. programs are also available.
The Idaho outpost of Utah's Brigham Young University features the lowest average tuition and fees cost of any school on our list, reporting a yearly charge of just over $4,000 for in-state tuition and fees. BYU-I also earmarked the third-largest percentage of its annual budget for academic support expenses out of all 700+ schools we surveyed for this analysis.
Early childhood education programs at BYU-I: Students here can pursue a B.S. in child development that focuses on research and scholarship or a classroom teaching degree in early childhood special education (ECSE). The ECSE degree features several opportunities to apply your classroom lessons, from early practicum sessions for student-teaching experience to working with families and other professionals in on-campus early childhood education labs.
The Seattle campus of the University of Washington posted an impressive graduation rate in 2017-18 -- over 84 percent -- qualifying it for the No. 10 spot in the country in that category. UW was also one of the top schools nationally for its raw dollar amount spent per student per year on academic and instructional support expenses, nearly doubling the amount reported by the second-highest spending institution on our list.
Early childhood education programs at UW: Students looking for online early childhood education degrees can pursue a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in early care and education at UW, which can be completed entirely in the virtual classroom. ECE pros who want to move into the leadership tier can pursue a Master's in Education Policy (M.E.P.) on campus here.
Founded in 1897, this member of the California State University system began its life with just seven faculty members and fewer than 100 students. San Diego State University has grown quite a bit since then, enrolling 36,000 students in 2018 and awarding approximately 10,000 undergraduate and graduate degrees that spring. The student body here is highly decorated, as well, earning a total of more than 90 Fulbright awards since 2005.
Early childhood education programs at SDSU: The department of special education at SDSU offers an early childhood special education specialization for undergraduates hoping to teach in the classroom. Five study plans in child and family development are available as well, including an M.S. degree with a concentration in early childhood mental health.
No other school on our list posted a higher graduation rate than the University of Florida, where more than 88 percent of students complete their degrees in fewer than 12 semesters. Students who enroll also tend to stay the course once they begin studying; UF has a 96 percent retention rate for first-year students, better than all but five of the over 700 schools in our study.
Early childhood education programs at UF: ECE students have five total study plans to choose from here. UF's one undergraduate plan, the Unified Early Childhood ProTeach program, takes an interdisciplinary approach and combines bachelor's and master's study to culminate in a master's degree. Working teachers can also earn a fully online graduate certificate in early childhood education.
Another member of the CSU system, California State University, Fullerton features a dynamic list of adjunct learning centers that includes a wildlife sanctuary in a regional wilderness park and an art center in the city of Santa Ana in Orange County. No other school on our list awards a higher number of ECE degrees than Cal State Fullerton, where around 450 early childhood education students graduate each semester.
Early childhood education programs at Cal State Fullerton: If you're hoping to focus your ECE study on literacy and reading education, Cal State Fullerton has a set of programs for you. Graduate students here can earn an M.S. in education with a concentration in literacy and reading education, a reading and literacy leadership specialist credential and more.
Founded in Stillwater, Minnesota, in 1900, Rasmussen College is a nationally distributed network of private, for-profit schools that focuses much of its energy on distance education programs. It posted the largest percentage of online enrollment among all the schools that made our list -- more than 93 percent of Rasmussen students take at least some of their courses in the virtual classroom.
Early childhood education programs at Rasmussen: A full range of online early childhood education degrees is available through Rasmussen's St. Cloud campus. Students in the ECE bachelor's program may choose to specialize their study toward child development or ECE leadership, while the associate degree and diploma programs offer specializations in child development and special needs education.
Only one other school on our list reserves a larger portion of its annual budget for academic support expenses than this Ohio institution. More than 41 percent of the student body at the University of Cincinnati took at least one online course in 2018, and its graduation rate ranks in the 90th percentile among the hundreds of schools we analyzed.
Early childhood education programs at UC: Online early childhood education programs at UC include a Bachelor of Science in Education (B.S.Ed.) plan that prepares students to teach children from birth to age five in a variety of educational and child care settings. It also provides a certificate-level program to train students for the Child Development Associate (CDA) exam, and the two-year associate degree features three distinct focus areas.
First opening its doors in 1808 with just one professor and three students, Ohio University is the longest-standing institution to make our list of top ECE schools, It's grown in leaps and bounds since that fateful year, adding ten more campuses around the Buckeye State and educating more than 28,000 students in 2018 while managing to keep its student-faculty ratio to a comfortable 17:1.
Early childhood education programs at OHIO: Students here have access to a B.S.Ed. in early childhood education that leads to a teaching license for preschool through third grade. Graduate students can pursue a Master of Education (M.Ed.) in reading education, and online offerings include a 10-credit ECE generalist endorsement and a dual licensure master's degree in ECE and ECSE.
Early Childhood Education Degrees and Careers
There are many levels of early childhood education degrees, ranging from non-degree undergraduate certificates to highly advanced doctoral degrees for post-graduate professionals. Here's a quick rundown of what you can expect from each degree level:
For more insight into working in the field of early childhood education, read about becoming an early childhood education specialist.
Early Childhood Education Program Accreditation
Early childhood education program accreditation is a process by which an independent industry group certifies that the instruction provided in ECE programs meets the standards of quality expected by school administrators and employers. Most ECE degrees are accredited by the following agencies:
- National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
- The National Accreditation Commission for Early Care and Education Programs (NAC)
Individual states may also conduct their own accreditation process for ECE programs. Check with your state board of education for more details.
Early Childhood Education Certification and Licensure
Certification and licensure are handled at the state level, so the exact requirements for ECE certification can vary from one region to another. Some states may use the terms “teacher certification” and “teacher license” interchangeably, while others may have one set of requirements to become certified and a different set for licensure. Make sure to contact your state board of education or another reliable source to find out what it takes to teach in the state where you live.
Different occupations in the education field may also have unique certification requirements. To give you more detailed information on ECE certification for specific careers, we’ve put together profiles for education careers like the following:
- Kindergarten teacher
- Special education teacher
- Education administrator
Career Outlook for Early Childhood Development
Given the high priority many states and parents place on early childhood education, the future of several careers in this field is bright. Here's a closer look at the job outlook for some early childhood professions.
Financial Aid and Scholarships
Many colleges and universities offer their own scholarship and financial assistance to those enrolled in their early childhood education programs. Plus, private organizations and foundations may offer their own awards. These include the Inspire Our Future Scholarship and the Bright Futures Scholarship for Early Childhood Teachers, among others.
Q&A with an expert
What are the most common educational paths for those interested in this career field?
First and foremost, anyone interested in this career field should love working with young children between the ages of about four through eight. Some schools require a bachelor's degree in child development or early childhood education; however, a graduate degree in early childhood education has become more common among early childhood educators.
Why is a degree in early childhood education important?
Advances in brain research show that the first five years are important to the cognitive as well as social emotional development of young children. This time is also important to the success young children experience later in their academic journey because those early years are building block years.
To be included in these rankings, all schools must meet the following initial criteria for the specific subject being ranked.
- Offer a degree or certificate program in that subject.
- Have awarded at least one degree or certificate in that subject in the most recent year of IPEDS data available.
Based on those criteria, we ranked all 2-year and 4-year schools in IPEDS that reported data for all of the following points. Ratings are calculated on a 10-point scale, using the weights specified.
- In-state undergraduate tuition & fees, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Median debt of completers, College Scorecard, 2017
- 3-year loan repayment rate, College Scorecard, 2017
- Graduation rate, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Full-time retention rate, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Institutional spending, based on two equally weighted factors, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Instructional and academic support expenses per full-time enrolled student
- Instructional and academic support spending as a percentage of all expenses
- Flexibility, based on the following factors, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Percent of students enrolled fully or partly in distance education
- Whether the school offers programs that can be completed entirely in the evenings and on weekends
- Whether the school offers academic and career counseling
- Size of program, based on how many of the degrees and certificates awarded in 2016-17 were in this particular subject, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2017-18, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2017-18, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
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- Scholarship directory data is copyrighted material which is reproduced on this website by permission of Wintergreen Orchard House, a division of Carnegie Communications. Copyright © 2017-18 by Wintergreen Orchard House. All rights reserved.
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