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Why child care costs more than college tuition — and how to make it more affordable

March 9, 2018
The Conversation

Amid the continually rising cost of tuition, the idea of free college has received growing attention over the past few years. For instance, from 2014 to 2017, 35 states took up 80 bills related to free college.

Early care and education has also received attention, but it could be given more, especially when you consider how child care for infants costs more than tuition at four-year public colleges in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Similarly, child care for 4-year-olds costs more than public college tuition in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

The reality is that child care in America is expensive and out of reach for many families. Whether center-based or family child care, the average cost of child care nationally exceeds US$8,600 per year.

By comparison, that is more than double the estimated average net tuition and fee price of $4,140 paid by full-time in-state students at public four-year institutions in the 2017-18 academic year.

There are other good reasons why child care affordability should get just as much attention as college affordability, if not more.

For starters, families typically use child care for five years per child – a year longer than earning a bachelor’s degree is supposed to take.

Learning gaps start early

High-quality care during the infant and toddler years is particularly important when you consider the research that shows the most rapid period of learning and brain development takes place during the first three years of life. There is growing evidence that the gaps in test scores between children from low-income and high-income families begin well before students enter kindergarten.

One likely contributor to these achievement gaps is the gap in center care and preschool attendance between children from low- and higher-income families. For instance, in 2005, 22 percent of 1-year-olds from families with moderate incomes attended center-based care, compared to just 11 percent of 1-year-olds from low-income families, federal statistics show.

Decades of research show the many benefits of high-quality early care and education. Right now, unequal access to high-quality child care is exacerbating social and economic inequality. Speaking as a researcher in the field of child care for more than a decade, I believe that access to high-quality early learning opportunities needs to be expanded to narrow achievement gaps.