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When American University graduate Elyse Barletta, 27, was looking for a full-time nannying position recently in Charlotte, N.C., three families wanted to hire her—all were impressed by her college education.
"They wanted someone who could help with their children's homework," said Barletta, a history major who made the dean's list and is proficient in French.
Experts say young women like Barletta make up a fast-growing segment of the nanny industry: College graduates who could go into law, medicine or other fields but are choosing to become career nannies, sometimes because they struggled to find jobs in their desired professions. These highly credentialed child-minders are being greeted with open arms into middle-class and upper-class families who want to give their kids an edge in an increasingly competitive world.
Barletta, who worked as a nanny in college to make extra money, tried but failed to find a job in her chosen field, nonprofit work, after graduation. But she has no regrets: Nannying, she says, brings her a good salary and rich personal rewards. Ultimately, she chose to work for the Norman family, who has a 9-month-old girl named Reynolds.
"I have patience for kids. I love it," said Barletta, who refers to herself as a "modern-day Mary Poppins."
Cliff Greenhouse, president of the Pavillion Agency, which helps New Yorkers find household staff, has noticed a shift toward nannies like Barletta since the mid-1990s, when he saw very few Americans in the industry and fewer college-educated applicants. He attributes the change to the growth of working mothers, with many women becoming the breadwinners of their families.
Barletta, a former history major, says her job nannying for Reynolds is personally rewarding.
"Moms [who use our agency] aren't going to work full-time unless they can leave their children in the care of someone they consider a peer," he said.
Becky Kavanagh, co-president of the nonprofit International Nanny Association, has also observed this trend, especially among professional couples in larger metropolitan areas. "They're looking into the total education of their child," she said, adding that many couples seek out nannies who have degrees in early-childhood education as well as nannying experience. For some parents, the ultimate nanny candidate has multiple degrees, including master's degrees. "They see that and say, 'Oh my gosh, I have to have that,' " she said.
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Experts say they have seen a rise in highly educated applicants at nanny agencies since the Great Recession.
"When the economy went down, you saw a lot of educated people try to break into the industry because they thought, 'I have a degree in business.' Anybody can take care of kids. They found out really quickly that wasn't the case because the agencies wouldn't work with them without prior experience," said Michelle LaRowe, editor-in-chief of Longhorn Leads, a Houston-based portfolio of sites that connects parents and caregivers. But college-educated applicants who babysat or nannied during school found their services in high demand.
When Natalie Gibbs, 27, started nannying for a family in Hinsdale, Ill., about two months ago, her college degree was of great interest to her new clients. "They were willing to pay a bit more for an educated nanny," said Gibbs, who was an applied science major.
In many places across the country, some families are so eager for well-educated nannies, they're paying them salaries comparable to entry-level finance careers.
Few statistics exist on nanny salaries, primarily because most of these workers—regardless of their level of education—are paid under the table. In an annual survey conducted by the International Nanny Association this year, nannies reported a median salary of $16 per hour. But experts say the highest paid nanny can make $100,000 or more annually, depending on location, education and references.
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Despite the hefty price tag, some families see a well-credentialed nanny as a wise investment—and even a way to save money on tutoring fees.
Former history major Barletta says of nannying, "I have patience for kids. I love it."
Donna Walrond, a Brooklyn, N.Y., mom of three boys, employs a full-time nanny who didn't go to college, but recently hired a second nanny, Samantha, who has a bachelor's degree and is fluent in Hebrew, to tutor her two elementary-school aged sons during the school year.
"In terms of tutoring fees, for a while I was paying 80 dollars an hour," said Walrond, who founded and runs a local nanny agency herself. "[Samantha] helps the kids with the homework and takes a load off for me because when I come home in the evening, I don't have to do it."
Regan Spear, 22, of Napa, Calif., who recently started nannying for a 5-year-old boy and 17-month-old girl, says she plays a similar role in her new employers' family. "We've made a lot of changes since I've come in," she said, citing the fruit she's added to the kids' breakfasts and the electronics she's removed from 5-year-old Luke's playtime. "[The parents] back me on anything I want to do. We are three people parenting these children not two."
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Spear, who has a degree in human development with a focus on early childhood education, believes that her schooling was a huge asset when applying for her job. "I think that really comforted [my employer]. Whether it's a physical ailment or a learning disability, I know how to recognize these things and help [the children] develop," said Spear, who helped her 17-month-old charge Lucy learn how to walk two months ago.
Spear eventually wants to start her own nanny placement agency, but hopes to stay with her current family for another five years or so. She believes her highly-specialized education is crucial for anyone considering her field.
"In today's world," she said, "knowing how to change a diaper isn't enough."
—By Elizabeth Chuck, Staff Writer, NBC News.