A career in early childhood education provides the opportunity to shape young minds, while also offering above average pay and steady job prospects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median kindergarten and elementary school teacher earned $56,900 in 2017, which is almost $20,000 more per year than the median salary for all other occupations. The BLS also projects that employment in this field will grow by approximately 7% through 2026.

While an associate degree may qualify you for jobs as a childcare worker or preschool teacher in certain states, most positions in K-12 public education require at least a bachelor's degree. By completing an associate program, you can determine whether teaching represents a good professional fit for you while also earning college credits that can ultimately transfer towards a degree at a four-year college or university.

Should I Get an Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education?

An associate degree in early childhood education is a great choice if you intend to work as a childcare professional directly upon graduation or want to continue your education in order to become a preschool, kindergarten, or elementary school teacher. While you may qualify for some preschool teaching roles with only an associate degree, an increasing number of states now require a bachelor's degree in education for these positions.

A two-year associate program offers a convenient and affordable way to begin earning the credits required for a degree from a four-year institution. Associate programs require general education coursework in areas like math, communication, and the social sciences. You also have the opportunity to sample education-related subjects like learning theory, classroom management, and the psychology of the developing child. This combination of coursework equips you with the skills needed for entry-level childcare jobs and lays the foundation to earn a bachelor's in education.

Because associate programs in early childhood education usually do not require internships or practicums, students can more easily earn their degrees online or on a part-time basis. This also makes it easier for you to balance your studies with other personal or professional obligations.

Institutions that offer both two-year and four-year degrees allow you to transfer the credits you earned in an associate program towards a bachelor's degree, should you choose to continue your education. Many community colleges partner with area colleges and universities to allow for the easy transfer of credits, as well.

What Can I Do With an Associate in Early Childhood Education?

An associate in early childhood education prepares you for entry-level jobs in childcare and education. It can also serve as a stepping stone to a four-year degree or an opportunity to determine whether this field matches your personal and professional interests. Educators of all stripes must possess strong communication, organizational, and interpersonal skills.

Childcare Worker

Childcare workers attend to children's basic needs, including feeding, bathing, dressing, and supervising play and interactions with other children. They may work for a childcare center or caring for the children of a single family. Although education requirements for these roles generally do not exist, employers may prefer to hire candidates with at least an associate degree.

Median Annual Salary: $22,290

Preschool Teacher

Preschool teachers provide a combination of childcare and education for students who have yet to enter kindergarten. They largely focus on helping children develop communication and social skills. While an associate degree may qualify you for some of these jobs, more states and districts now look to hire candidates with at least a bachelor's degree in education.

Median Annual Salary: $28,990

Preschool and Childcare Center Director

Directors oversee the operations of education and childcare facilities. They hire, train, and supervise staff; create and monitor budgets; and design program curricula. Typically, you must have a bachelor's degree to take on these positions, though earning an associate degree in early childhood education can serve as the first step towards meeting this educational requirement.

Median Annual Salary: $46,890

Teacher Assistant

Under the supervision of licensed teachers, teaching assistants provide individualized attention and support for students. They may work at schools, childcare centers, or nonprofit educational or religious organizations. Employers generally require candidates to hold an associate degree or complete a comparable amount of college-level coursework in education.

Median Annual Salary: $26,260

How to Choose an Associate Program in Early Childhood Education

When considering where to earn your early childhood education associate degree, you should consider some important questions. First, do you want to study online or on-campus? Getting an associate degree in early childhood education online allows you to schedule your learning around work or family obligations, and you can also watch lectures and complete coursework from the comfort of your own home. Online education does require a great deal of self-discipline, however.

While most students seek out programs in their immediate area, you may want to relocate in order to continue your education. In these cases, make sure to consider factors like the length of your commute, the cost and quality of living in a particular neighborhood or region, and job opportunities available to you during college and after graduation.

What can you afford? Community colleges offer the best values in postsecondary education. Students pursuing their early childhood education associate degree can complete up to half of the credits required for a bachelor's, and at a fraction of the cost of attending a university for all four years.

Do you want to study full time or part time? Most associate programs give students the option of studying on a part-time basis, but you should confirm that night and weekend classes fit your unique schedule.

What, specifically, do you hope to study? Early childhood education associate degree programs provide a general introduction to many key concepts, but usually do not feature specializations. However, you may want to take a class in an area like special education technology, and not all schools offers these types of courses.

Associate in Early Childhood Education Program Admissions

To encourage more students to pursue a postsecondary education, many schools offering early childhood education associate degrees have lenient admissions requirements. Generally speaking, you must have a high school diploma or GED, and you must also demonstrate a basic level of competence in reading, writing, and math. Schools usually do not require applicants to submit standardized test scores, though they may require them to sit for placement exams to determine whether remedial courses are necessary.

Community colleges generally do not interview applicants, though they may occasionally request additional information to inform their admissions decision. You also typically do not need to submit letters of recommendation, though some schools may ask you to compose a personal essay describing your academic and professional goals.

While associate programs have high acceptance rates, you should still plan to apply to two schools to ensure that you gain admission to at least one.

Admission Materials

  • Application:Give yourself plenty of time to complete your application, as it may require you to create or submit additional materials, such as a personal essay.
  • Transcripts: You must submit your high school or GED transcripts in order to apply. To do so, contact your school or provider directly and allow for several weeks for these requests to be processed.
  • Application Fee: Schools usually charge a modest application fee, which is usually $20-$50. Military personnel, veterans, and individuals with demonstrated financial need can often qualify for fee waivers.

Educational Paths for Early Childhood Education Associate Programs

Transferring your credits from an associate program to a four-year college or university can open up more lucrative employment opportunities. According to the BLS, an early childhood education associate degree qualifies you for some preschool teaching roles with a median salary of $28,990. Individuals who continue their education and earn a bachelor's degree; however, can take on positions as kindergarten and elementary school teachers and receive a median salary of $56,900. Here are three bachelor's programs you can pursue after earning your associate degree.

Bachelor's in Elementary Education

A natural continuation of an an early childhood education associate degree, this program prepares students to take on a wide variety of roles at kindergartens and elementary schools. Graduates can teach, serve as literacy specialists or instructional designers, or continue their education at the master's level to become a school counselor or administrator.

Bachelor's in Secondary Education

After earning a degree in early childhood education, some students may decide they prefer to work with older children. This degree qualifies graduates for licensure as middle and high school teachers. After gaining several years of classroom experience, you may decide to return to school in order to take on leadership roles like principal or assistant superintendent.

Bachelor's in Special Education

The BLS projects demand for special education teachers to rise as more children with disabilities enter special education programs. A bachelor's in this field can position you to take advantage of those opportunities through coursework in areas like educational assessment, behavioral interventions, and universal design for learning.

What Else Can I Expect From an Associate Program in Early Childhood Education?

Because they provide an introduction to liberal arts topics and a broad overview to key concepts in the field of early childhood education, most associate programs in this area feature similar coursework and structures. However, the exact classes you take and your unique path to graduation varies depending on which school you attend.

Courses in an Associate Program in Early Childhood Education

In addition to general education topics in areas like math, science, communication, and the humanities, earning your early childhood education associate degree develops a basic understanding of educational theory and teaches the professional skills needed for entry-level roles in childcare and teaching. Below are five courses common to these programs.

Introduction to Early Childhood Education

One of the first courses you take as part of an associate program, this class provides a broad overview of early childhood education. The curriculum includes the history, guiding philosophies, issues and challenges specific to the field, and a discussion of public policy developments in the last century. Students also explore possible career paths.

Introduction to Early Childhood Behavior Management

To succeed as an early childhood teacher or caregiver, you must understand the kind of behavior appropriate to expect at various ages and in diverse settings. Students in this class examine issues like positive reinforcement, motivation theory, and the creation and implementation of behavior support plans.

Introduction to Curriculum and Instruction

Through readings, discussion, and practice, students investigate and employ curriculum design and instruction strategies. Learners also develop a curriculum unit plan and accompanying assessment tools to help students understand the effectiveness of different approaches.

Introduction to Child Development

Students in this course examine child development from birth to adolescence, including concepts such as developmental stages, developmental domains, and milestones of development -- all with the ultimate goal of learning to better support a child's emotional, social, and intellectual growth. Beginning with a foundation in theory, students apply developmentally appropriate practices in simulated classroom settings.

Collaboration with Parents and Community

Students, especially young children, often learn just as much outside of school as they do in the classroom. To effectively guide their educational development, teachers and caregivers must work closely with families and community members. This class introduces key communication strategies and provides an overview of available community resources.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Associate in Early Childhood Education?

Nearly all associate programs consist of 60 credits, and full-time students usually take about two years to graduate. Part-time students may take up to four years to meet the requirements for graduation. Community colleges rarely impose time limits on these programs.

In certain cases, students can potentially earn their degree even faster. For example, some schools offer students the opportunity to test out of subjects in which they have prior experience or can demonstrate competency. Other programs feature accelerated tracks, allowing students to take heavier course loads than traditionally recommended.

Some online programs even support self-paced learning. Here, students can advance through lessons and assignments as soon as they feel they have mastered the material, without needing to wait on instructors or their fellow classmates. So long as these students pass exams at the end of each section, they can learn at whatever speed they choose.

How Much Is an Associate in Early Childhood Education?

The cost of an early childhood education associate degree varies from program to program. For example, the tuition at Ashford University, an online and for-profit school based in San Diego, comes to approximately $28,500. Students at Southern Maine Community College, on the other hand, pay only $11,280 for a two-year degree, and Maine residents pay as little as $5,640 in tuition.

However, these figures do not reflect the full cost of your education. You also need to factor in expenses like room and board, books and course materials, and various fees. Online students can avoid some of these costs, though schools may charge them a technology or distance education fee instead.

In addition to researching tuition discounts available to state residents, veterans, and other groups to which you belong, you should also apply for financial aid. To do so, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA determines whether you qualify for federal grants, work-study opportunities, or student loans with no interest or comparatively low rates. You can also apply for scholarships based on academic achievement, community service, and financial need. You do not need to pay back money you receive in the form of scholarships or grants, though you do need to pay back loans.

Professional Organizations in Early Childhood Education

After earning your early childhood education associate degree, you should consider joining a professional organization in your field. These groups offer professional development and continuing education resources, host networking opportunities, and advertise new job openings. Early in your career, you can use these groups to identify mentors who can offer advice or make connections on your behalf. As you become more established as an education professional, you can then return this favor to the next generation of recent graduates.

National Education Association

The NEA represents more than 3 million education professionals in the United States. It advocates on behalf of its members; offers classroom tools and research briefs; and provide grants, scholarships, and awards to teachers.

American Federation of Teachers

The second largest teachers' union in the country, the AFT serves roughly 1.7 million individuals working in the education profession. Most states and large cities have local chapters that provide services directly to members.

National Child Care Association

For graduates who plan to work in childcare, membership in the NCCA offers many benefits. The group hosts a professional development webinar series, provides discounts on tuition and insurance, and maintains a job board.