At a professional conference in July, Bright Horizons, a national childcare chain, announced that the company would pay for any of its employees to pursue an associates or bachelor's degree in early childhood education.
Lori Carroll, 45, is the director of a Bright Horizons facility in Worchester, Massachusetts. When she heard the news, she asked for more information as soon as she could.
"I had always planned to get my bachelor's degree; this means I can do it faster," Carroll said. "It's just an amazing opportunity.
"I'm hoping to continue my professional growth and gain exposure for future opportunities within Bright Horizons."
The program provides a full-ride to one of four schools, which include Ashford University, Northampton Community College, Rasmussen College and Walden University. Employees can take advantage of the opportunity on their first day of work, and would attend school part-time online while continuing to work full-time at Bright Horizons. Three of the schools are for-profit institutions.
The program also utilizes the expertise of EdAssist, an education management company owned by Bright Horizons. Interested employees work with EdAssist to find the school that is the best fit for their needs so that they can attain their degree while continuing to work full-time.
"Education kept coming up" in discussions with teachers, said Stephen Kramer, CEO of Bright Horizons. "At the same time, we, as an organization and as a field, face a diminishing pool of qualified early childhood educators."
Money can definitely be a barrier to entry for those interested in early childhood education. In 2017, the median pay for a preschool teacher was $13.94 an hour or $28,990 a year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job typically requires at least an associate's degree, which can cost thousands of dollars — even if classes are taken online. Childcare workers without a degree made a median of $10.72 an hour, or $22,290 a year in 2017.
As the unemployment rate holds around a low 4 percent and the labor market tightens, many employers are looking for ways to entice and retain workers. Helping employees continue education or pay off student loans is becoming increasingly popular; companies such as Walmart, AT&T, Verizon, Disney, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Chipotle have programs that help with tuition.
The new Bright Horizons program is different from education programs at other companies because it does not require any financial investment from the employee. At many companies, it is more common that a student will have to put down money for continuing education up front to be reimbursed by the employer later.
This was a big deal for Ruby Saldana Hernandez, 24, who is going to be pursing her bachelor's degree in early childhood education in the fall.
Hernandez had always dreamed of going to college. Although she was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she moved to Mexico with her family in high school when her parents, both undocumented immigrants, were deported.
College "wasn't going to be able to happen when we lived in Mexico," Hernandez said. In 2014, she moved back to Colorado and married.
Today, she works at the Fitzsimons Early Learning Center in Aurora, Colorado, and had been pursuing a degree at a local community college with the help of Bright Horizons. She decided to switch to the new program because it is free of cost to her.
"Coming here and having all this opportunity to go to school was just a blessing really," she said.
She is now in the process of transferring credits from the community college she attended to one of the online courses. All four schools that Bright Horizons is working with are accredited, which makes the process of transferring credits to or from the institutions more likely – it can be difficult to transfer credits to or from for-profit schools that are not accredited.
Hernandez expects that completing her degree will take four years. During that time she will be working full-time at Bright Horizons and taking classes at night.
"This is something that I really want," said Hernandez.
The company expects to see a return on the program investment down the road, from increased retention rates to higher numbers of promotions and accelerated compensation. There are currently 15,000 employees eligible for the benefit, the company said, and since the program started over 1,000 have expressed interest.
The effort is part of a competitive benefit package at Bright Horizons. "We've tried to make it a really attractive place to be," said Kramer.
Since it began, the company has seen interest in new recruits as well as current employees.
"'Hire for attitude, train for skill' is a saying at Bright Horizons," Kramer said.