Childcare company’s solution for recruiting educators: free college degree benefits

There’s a bit of irony to the problem: teachers and other educators who can’t afford to go to college.

But one employer has a new idea on how to take aim at the issue.

Bright Horizons, a childcare company which serves more than 100,000 children at childcare centers throughout the country, just announced a new benefit for its 20,000 employees: free associates or bachelor’s degrees.

Bright Horizons’ new benefit allows all of its full-time workers — including teachers, assistant teachers and other center staff — to earn a full-ride degree in early childhood education at one of four online schools: Ashford University, Northampton Community College, Rasmussen College and Walden University.

“Our teachers are our greatest asset,” says Bright Horizons CEO Stephen Kramer. “We did some digging to find out what they thought about the tuition assistance benefit we were previously offering. It turns out that program had fairly low utilization because even though the tuition program was helpful, there were still barriers to financing a degree when the large majority [of costs] needed to be paid out-of-pocket.”

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The company’s new free tuition benefit alleviates that issue by covering all expenses, including tuition, fees and books, so there are no out-of-pocket fees.

There’s also no waiting period: Bright Horizons employees will be eligible for the benefit, dubbed the Early Education Degree Achievement Plan, starting on their first day of work.

The benefit is a big volley in the company’s efforts to recruit and retain employees — an effort made especially vital by a decline in the number of people pursuing education degrees. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people pursuing education degrees has declined from 21.6% in 1975 to 7.6% in 2018. That number is even lower for those specializing in early childhood education: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, early education degrees account for less than 3% of college degrees.

“Fewer and fewer people are studying early childhood education and joining the field,” Kramer says. “To be successful, we needed to think about how to get people to join the field and be interested in early childhood education.”

In addition to tuition and expenses, individuals who sign up for the benefit will have the support of an education adviser who will help them determine the right program to meet their career goals and fit within their personal lives. The Early Education Degree Achievement Plan will be administered through EdAssist, provider of tuition assistance and student loan repayment benefits and a division of Bright Horizons.

Though just announced late last month, the benefit is already a hit, says Maribeth Bearfield, Bright Horizon’s chief human resources officer, noting employee reaction has been “incredibly positive.”

“There’s been a very strong interest in participation,” she says. “In the first week the program was live, we received almost 1,000 inquiries from center employees and signed up over 700 employees for introductory advising sessions. The numbers have continued to grow since then.”

One employee taking advantage of the benefit is Sara Vanderhoof, a 46-year-old teacher at the Bright Horizons Mount Olive center in Flanders, New Jersey.

“I’ve been wanting to go back to school for years, but because of financial constraints it didn’t seem like it would be a possibility for me,” she says. [But with this new tuition benefit,] I will actually be able to pursue my bachelor’s degree, which not only allows me to fulfill a dream of mine, but will also make me a better teacher for my students. I have already signed up and have a call scheduled with an adviser in a few weeks.”

Bright Horizon’s move follows in the footsteps of credit card giant Discover, which also announced this summer that it will offer free college tuition as a benefit for its 16,500 employees. The credit card giant’s benefit allows the vast majority of its employees — full-time employees and part-time workers who work at least 30 hours a week are eligible — a full-ride online bachelor’s degree from three different universities: the University of Florida, Wilmington University and Brandman University.

As the unemployment rate holds around a low 4% and the labor market tightens, more employers are beefing up their education benefits to entice and retain workers.

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, said in May that its 1.5 million employees can now pursue associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in business or supply-chain management at three nonprofit schools for $1 a day. Kroger said in April it will offer employees up to $3,500 annually for continuing education and development, including a high school equivalency exam, professional certifications and advanced degrees. Chick-fil-A, Hulu, Lowe’s, McDonald’s and Taco Bell also have boosted education benefits since the beginning of the year.

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