Lowering Barriers, Opening Doors

Early childhood online degree helps aspirations blossom while elevating the workforce


With her full-time job—not to mention her three “very active” sons—Nicole Traore wondered if she’d ever be able to get the bachelor’s degree she’d always dreamed of.

Traci Carvalho Mattos’ story was similar. She’d earned an associate’s degree in the ‘90s. Then she married, had two children, and her husband was deployed to Afghanistan.

Like Nicole and Traci, Grace Ingram had always hoped to achieve a four-year college education. But with two high-school-aged kids and a full-time job, she was starting to wonder if she’d ever achieve her goal.

Today, Traore is a support specialist for Washington State’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. Mattos is a teaching assistant in a community center-based preschool in Maui, Hawaii. And Ingram is a family support specialist at South Seattle’s El Centro de la Raza, working with preschoolers and their families.

All three credit the online degrees they earned in the University of Washington’s Early Care and Education (formerly Early Childhood and Family Studies) program with their current success—and with empowering them to move forward in the future.

Video spotlight

Grace Ingram wanted to make a difference for young children and their families, but earning her bachelor’s degree while taking care of her own family seemed impossible. Being able to complete a high-quality online degree program changed her life.

Lowering barriers

According to UW professor and Cultivate Learning Director Gail Joseph, these women are exactly the type of people the Early Care and Education online degree aims to reach—and to empower.

“Our ideal student is already working in an early learning setting,” said Joseph, Bezos Family Foundation Distinguished Professor in Early Learning. “A majority of the field now don’t have bachelor’s degrees, but there are all these policies being put in place that say they need them. This is our attempt to make degrees available to a workforce that has been dedicated to this field for so long. We see it as a social justice issue.”

Joseph said the program puts strong emphasis on lowering barriers that older students, full-time workers, parents and first-generation students face in gaining a BA degree.

It’s flexible in terms of time, more affordable than many programs, and coursework is 100 percent online, Joseph said, with the exception of service learning courses where students work in preschool classrooms or childcare centers—coursework students who are already working with kids can integrate into their current jobs.

Advisers work from day one to offer high-touch support and guidance to applicants, many of whom are older and may not have a lot of experience with higher education—or even with current technology.

Theory + Research + Practice Experience


The theory and research that undergird the UW’s online Early Care and Education program is that of intentional teaching, which requires teachers to KNOW what to do in the moment, SEE effective teaching in themselves and others, DO or enact these practices in the classroom, REFLECT on what works and what does not, and IMPROVE with thoughtful practices.


Gain knowledge of child development and specific practices


Describe what’s happening in one’s own and others’ video clips using specific behavioral language


Set goals, plan and implement strategies


Observe one’s own practice, assess, analyze and implement quantifiable positive change

World-class pedagogy

But while lowering barriers is a vital goal of the program, Joseph said equal emphasis has been placed on making sure students are given a truly world-class education.

“All the courses were developed out of a 2010 grant from the Office of Head Start,” Joseph said.

That grant meant that core coursework for the online Early Care and Education degree could be refined by participation of UW and national early learning experts, along with cutting-edge research from the UW’s National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning.

“We gathered national experts from all over the country to develop courses that reflected the latest science on how to optimize child and family outcomes,” Joseph said. “And we also used this embedded video-based coaching. We wanted to allow working students to participate fully—and directly, immediately apply what they’re learning.

“The online program continues to be an innovation incubator and a national leader in terms of how to do BA programs for early childhood educators.”

Nationwide influence

Making the opportunity to earn a UW bachelor’s degree available to the roughly 80 students a year who enroll in the program was a good start. But Joseph had a bigger goal in mind.

“Since the UW couldn’t meet the needs of every student across the country who needed to get a BA, we started forming an alliance with other institutions of higher education,” Joseph said.

That alliance, called the EarlyEdU Alliance, is one aspect of the collaborative partnership between Early Care and Education and the UW’s Cultivate Learning, and is one of Cultivate Learning’s multiple efforts to improve early childhood outcomes both statewide and nationally (see sidebar).

EarlyEdU works closely with faculty who use its courses at 52 institutions of higher education, including 32 four-year and 20 two-year schools. It also engages with policymakers in 27 states to explore ways to increase access and affordability of degree programs. Since beginning its work in 2013, Joseph estimates that EarlyEdU has reached close to 3,300 early childhood teacher preparation students—69 percent of whom already work in the field—and nearly 34,000 children.

“We targeted institutions that are serving working early childhood educators,” Joseph said. “Alliance members have access to EarlyEdU courses, so they can use the courses in their own degree-bearing programs.”

Impacting diverse communities

“Having my BA has impacted me very positively,” Ingram said. “A great part of the program was that it included courses on family studies—as a family support specialist at Jose Marti Child Development Center at El Centro de la Raza, I’m able to bring that all together by enrolling children into preschool while I help many, many families connect with resources and other services in the community. “I do outreach at different events to bring as many children as we can who are underserved and underrepresented in Latino communities and people from all backgrounds—African American, Anglo-American. Any child that is in need of being prepared to be ready for kindergarten. All the awesome things I learned at the UW I’m able to directly implement in my daily work with families.”

Audio Extra

Gail Joseph, Bezos Family Foundation Distinguished Professor in Early Learning, discusses how the University of Washington's online bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education program is changing lives by opening access to high quality, affordable and accessible degree options for the early learning workforce.

Sharing tech skills

Ingram said an added benefit of taking an online program was that she improved her technology skills—skills she now passes along to low-income families.

“Quite a few of our families don’t use technology. They don’t have computers at home. More of the lower-income families have never had someone show them how to use it, and they often don’t even use email.”

That lack of access to technology can hold families back. For instance, Ingram noted that this year for the first time, kindergarten enrollment for the Seattle School District needs to be done online.

Passing the torch

“When I was accepted was one of the most awesome days of my life,” Ingram said. “There were times when I had some difficulties in my personal life and my instructors were very supportive, cheering me on all the way.

“And when I graduated, Gail (Joseph) was right there on the stage and it seemed like it was all meant to be. When I walked up on the stage, she had her phone and she took a picture of me on the graduation stage—and that’s the only picture that I have! I have it on my wall. She’s awesome.

“It put me in a position to be in a professional job—and that’s the kind of job I wanted. I wanted to serve families, I wanted to be an example. I wanted to be able to say that even though you come from humble backgrounds or poverty or you think you don’t ever have a chance to have your college degree—you can do it!”

Ingram says she’s recommended the program to multiple people—including her own 22-year-old son Dante Ingram, who’s applied to the program.

“He’s inspired. He wants to work in early childhood education. He’s working toward that goal—and I am really, really proud of that.”

Cultivate Learning’s wide reach

Supportive partners help make a difference

Along with their efforts to provide world-class coursework to early education training programs nationwide through the EarlyEdU Alliance, Cultivate Learning Director Gail Joseph said that Cultivate Learning is engaged in several other major efforts to improve early childhood education:

  • The Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) program has done nearly 2,000 quality assessments of early learning programs and offered nearly 500 coaching sessions.

  • The Washington Early Achievers quality-rating program has completed more than 7,500 program assessments around Washington, impacting more than 50,000 preschoolers all over the state.

  • Cultivate Learning’s professional development efforts have trained more than 250 coaches and developed over 100 free training resources, reaching more than 4,000 participants.

“We’re grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Bezos Family Foundation, the Washington State Department of Early Learning and the Office of Head Start for support that makes our work possible,” Joseph said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”