Low pay in ‘helping’ professions creates a moral dilemma for colleges

The pandemic and mounting concerns about equity have colleges questioning whether they can continue to offer certain credentials in low-paying caregiving fields.

The warning signs for early childhood educators, healthcare workers, and others in helping professions have been blinking red for years.

Childcare workers can make more at Target or Dunkin’ Donuts than caring for toddlers at a daycare. Almost 20 percent of public school teachers work a second job during the school year, according to government survey data. And The Washington Post recently featured a pre-K teacher for special-needs students who is selling her plasma twice a week because her salary isn’t enough to support her two kids.

For decades, society has paid low wages for the jobs of caring for others—teaching young children, caring for infants or the elderly, providing support to families as a counselor or social worker. The real reward, it was implied, was a sense of personal satisfaction derived from helping others. 

And colleges didn’t need to think about the ethics or moral implications of that. Their job was to provide education for people interested in those fields, and for many, to help their region’s economy by providing the trained workers for those jobs. 

That thinking is shifting. 

As college costs and student debt have risen—and now, the cost of everyday living—there is an increasing urgency to understand what higher education’s role might be in improving the situation. In particular, institutions can no longer ignore the fact that the people who go into these helping fields are overwhelmingly women and people of color, especially ones from lower-income backgrounds.

  • For colleges that see themselves as engines of economic mobility, should they be encouraging students to choose these fields if wages aren’t likely to improve?
  • Should they be offering these programs at all?
  • And if they don’t educate the next generation of teachers, social workers, parole officers, counselors and healthcare workers, who will?

These are a major tension point for higher education without easy answers. That’s especially true at community colleges, which educate the majority of the frontline workers for the helping professions.

“In the community college space, leaders are looking at not just graduation rates but post-grad employment and earnings as a measure of success,” says Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute.

And what credential a student earns matters—a lot. “That is as determinative as whether you finish college,” he says. “That is the next wave of reform.” 

Colleges start to act

While low wages in caregiving roles isn’t a new problem, there’s a growing sense it can’t be ignored or deferred any longer. It’s a perfect storm of conditions, Wyner says

  • Almost every state, city, and town is facing acute shortages of teachers and substitutes, healthcare workers, and early childhood caregivers.
  • Unemployment rates are at historic lows, at least for now, so workers have more options than before.
  • Across society, there’s a heightened awareness about racial inequity, and that caregiving jobs are most likely to be held by Black and Lantino workers and those from lower-income backgrounds. 
  • Plus, a younger generation is asking questions around work—not just salary but about working conditions and what they expect out of work. 

The federal government may be putting pressure on, too. A proposed federal gainful employment rule would compare median earnings for graduates of nondegree programs at nonprofit colleges and all for-profit programs to the earnings of workers with only a high school education. A recent analysis showed more than 40 percent of the programs that would fall under that rule—and that have published debt and earnings data—would fail the high school earnings test.

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The tension around helping professions and low wages is perhaps seen most clearly in the early childhood education area. 

Across the country, early educators working at daycares and preschools face economic distress, according to the Center for the Study of Early Childhood Employment’s Workforce Index. In a major analysis of wages in childcare and preschool teaching in 2019, the group found that a single adult with no children would earn a living wage in only 10 states—while a single adult with one child would not make a living wage in any state.

Wages in childcare have gone up somewhat since then, but so too has the cost of living.

Because of numbers like those, some community college leaders are reluctant to offer entry-level early childhood certificates. A recent EdSurge article, for example, highlighted Valencia College’s decision to stop offering those credentials. Instead, the college is guiding students to pathways that lead to bachelor’s degrees or higher-paying jobs. 

But society needs these workers. 

“If you don’t have childcare workers, early childhood educators and certified childcare workers, what happens to the vibrancy of your community?” says Karen Stout, president of Achieving the Dream. 

The long view: A number of community colleges are focusing on career ladders, Stout says, providing next steps for students who get these certificates that can lead to higher paying jobs later.

Longer-term pathways for the working poor are something Mardy Leathers, director of Missouri’s Office of Workforce Development, thinks about a lot. Many of the state’s unemployed workers who go through training with the support of federal programs are hired for entry-level roles—especially as medical assistants or nurses aides—that may not pay much above minimum wage to start.

Leathers believes the state’s work can’t stop there.

Federal workforce dollars generally can’t be used for workers with jobs, but he’s thinking about ways the state can provide continued support for those re-entering the workforce in low-wage, but high-need jobs. The ideal would be at least one year of continued career coaching, he says, and potentially additional training—with a goal of keeping people in jobs and helping them move up.

Leathers and leaders in other states are talking to Congress about ways to rework the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which is up for reauthorization, to provide more flexibility in how states use federal dollars.

“We believe in sustainable employment and we know that maybe it doesn’t happen immediately,” Leathers says. “But let’s work with you.”

Cutting costs: Others are looking at reducing the cost or time of programs in high-need, but low-paying fields. Central Ohio Technical College, for instance, is transitioning its early childhood programs to a competency-based structure. The entire state of Illinois just made a similar move.

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Competency-based education allows students who are working in the field get credit for what they already know and can do, potentially reducing the time and cost of getting a credential, says Eric Heiser, provost at Central Ohio.

The college, he says, has a responsibility to continue educating teachers and childcare workers, and to try to do so equitably.

“We have a moral imperative to train the next generation of teachers—there’s no alternative.”

He and John Berry, Central Ohio’s president, have been talking to their state representatives about the need to raise wages for these jobs. While nothing has happened yet, they feel their concerns are starting to gain a critical mass.  

It’s something Heiser thinks about a lot. 

“We’ve got to stop the bleeding at some point and make this profession more attractive for students in college and those making decisions about which careers to pursue,” he says. 

Earn-and-learn: Nancee Sorenson, chancellor of Louisiana State University, Eunice, has taken on a similarly active role in her community around healthcare jobs. And the university is working with the regional health system, Ochsner Lafayette General, to create an apprenticeship program for respiratory therapists.

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Demand for such therapists in the region had been increasing, and it exploded with the pandemic and the sudden population of people facing long-Covid symptoms. 

The job pays a living wage, but many local residents needed one right away and couldn’t afford to wait until they completed the training. So, Sorenson and leaders at Ochsner Lafayette General looked for ways that students could earn money while learning.

They came up with an apprenticeship model, where a cohort of students will work in the hospital while they are earning their degree and board certification. The program is set to start this fall with an expected cohort of 10 students.

The university plans to focus its recruiting on students from underrepresented backgrounds, including veterans and students of color.  

A matter of equity

For Michael Collins, like many other higher education and workforce leaders, the focus on helping jobs is about gender and racial equity. 

The data: Such jobs are disproportionately held by women—often women of color—while men are overrepresented in higher-paying fields such as engineering or computer science. Black students, in particular, are underrepresented in STEM fields and overrepresented in lower-paying fields like social work, according to data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. 

Many students take on debt for those programs, and are especially likely to struggle to repay their loans. The combination of debt and relatively low pay has lifelong implications, says Collins, vice president at JFF—contributing to the wealth gap between Black and Latino families and their white counterparts.

“It really starts with who has access to what programs to study,” Collins says.

A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution found that community colleges serving large percentages of underrepresented minority students offered more seats in low-paying fields, like education, than did colleges serving mostly white students.

Collins argues there is inherent bias in tracking Black students into majors in lower paying helping fields—and students need more counseling and exposure to a wide range of higher paying fields that still can help their communities. 

“It doesn’t mean helping professions are not important,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the sole responsibility of people of color to carry that burden.”

On the ground: Lorain County Community College in Ohio is wrestling with that dilemma. The college dug into its data and found that Black and Latino students are underrepresented in the top in-demand fields and overrepresented in education, social work, and justice systems.

The college has rolled out new professional development for advisors, giving them information and tools to help students make more informed decisions about career paths based on demand in the local economy. 

“We have to ask, ‘Are we perpetuating gaps because of who we educate in specific programs?’” says Marisa Vernon White, vice president for enrollment management and student services at the college.

Building on-ramps and off-ramps

That kind of advising—not just presenting options, but helping students make educated choices about what career to pursue—is one of the concrete things colleges can do to help students move up economically, Wyner says. 

Alamo Colleges District, which educates more than 68,000 students in the San Antonio area, has a robust advising program for students in their first year. The goal is to reduce the time it takes students to earn a degree, and to embed industry certifications and other meaningful credentials, like badges, along the way.

“How do we ensure that their time, and their credential, is worthwhile?” says Mike Flores, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges. 

In the helping professions, the embedded credentials are designed to help students move up the career ladder even before they earn a full associate degree.

  • For example, a student on a healthcare track can go from a medical front office worker role to being a patient tech to a certified nursing assistant in 12 weeks.
  • Those credentials can be further expanded with additional education to become a licensed vocational nurse or a registered nurse with a bachelor’s degree. 

It’s about thinking in terms of on-ramps and off-ramps for students, Flores says. Alamo plans to expand this work beyond its healthcare programs, prioritizing fields that typically start with low-paying jobs.

The long road ahead

More colleges need to be thinking hard about their program mix, the design of pathways, and the kinds of advising they provide, Wyner says. But continued enrollment drops may complicate those efforts. College leaders, he says, may be less eager to cut or change programs when they need to fill seats. 

“The moral imperative and the mission oriented imperative to do something about those programs and who’s in them—the students of color, the low-income women in these programs—is mitigated by deep concerns about enrollment,” Wyner says.

For Alamo, the enrollment challenge is part of impetus for change. The college is doing more to meet students, many of whom are frontline workers and parents, where they are in their lives. 

That can mean offering courses in different formats, respecting their time, making the programs as efficient as possible, offering childcare, and even being available during the hours they’re most likely to be focusing on college, between 9 p.m. and midnight. 

“We owe a commitment to those frontline workers during the pandemic to ensure that we provide a pathway into the middle class for them, or affirm their foothold in the middle class,” Flores says. “What’s most critical is that we learn from the past two years and we honor the commitment.”

Elyse Ashburn contributed reporting to this article.

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