Early childhood education is a specialized niche of the teaching field that is primarily concerned with educating the young growing minds of children from birth through their eighth birthday. In a way that little children can understand, early childhood educators are given the task of fostering the development of language, vocabulary, basic math, and social skills. Whether they’re working in child care centers, preschool programs, primary classrooms, or other educational services, teachers in early childhood create lively environments where children are engaged in creative activities and prepared for life-long learning success. There are currently around 438,200 early childhood educators employed in the United States to simplify basic concepts that will be explored further in elementary school.
Due to our nation’s shifting focus on early intervention and intellectual development, it’s expected that the demand for preschool teachers and other early childhood educators will grow much faster than average at 17 percent before 2022. If you’re creative, patient, enthusiastic, passionate about children, and equipped with good communication skills, you could be the perfect fit for joining this in-demand teaching specialty. Requirements vary by state, but most early childhood educators must obtain certification after earning at least an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. There’s a wide range of on-campus and online early childhood education degree programs available across the country, but not all are created equal. In this article, we’ll explore the cream of the crop when it comes to producing high-achieving early childhood professionals.
Ranking the Best Early Childhood Education Degrees
In creating our program ranking for aspiring early childhood educators, we begin by focusing on universities that have been approved by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) through the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). Since this left more than 170 colleges across 32 states, we then narrowed down our list based on ranking recognition from the U.S. News and World Report survey. Nationally ranked universities offering high-quality, accredited early childhood education programs were given priority. Extra brownie points were also granted to those who specifically had highly ranked education schools and programs.
Due to the convenience of earning an online education in a self-paced format from anywhere at any time, we gave preference to any national universities offering online early childhood education degree options or hybrid programs. Spending time in the preschool classroom is essential, so we only chose universities that pair flexibility with practical hands-on learning experience. Other important factors considered in our ranking were faculty credentials, student engagement, program reputation, selectivity, financial aid, career services, campus location, and any unique learning opportunities. The following are our final picks for the top 10 early childhood education programs in the United States for preparing teachers to boost young children’s development.
As an elite comprehensive private research institution initially founded in 1873, Vanderbilt University is located on a beautiful 330-acre urban campus in Nashville, Tennessee, within just 1.5 miles from downtown “Music City.” Enrolling over 12,600 students from more than 90 counties, Vanderbilt is separated into four undergraduate and six professional schools to provide excellent research-oriented education. The U.S. News and World Report has ranked Vandy as the 16th best university and 11th top value school with the eighth best undergraduate teaching in America. Furthermore, Vanderbilt was recognized for having the third top graduate education school and overall best special education programs nationwide. The Times Higher Education even placed Vanderbilt as the 88th best college in the world.
Well-known for its very high selectivity with a 12.7 percent acceptance rate, Vanderbilt allows students to build on its broad liberal arts core in more than 150 majors. The Peabody College of Education houses all of the university’s education degree programs to train trailblazers, problem-solvers, and advocates in the classroom. Peabody is acclaimed for having produced more than 10,000 practicing teachers globally since 1979. The College also serves as home to the Susan Gray School, which is an on-campus school devoted to performing educational research involving young children with developmental disabilities. Peabody also started the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) to improve the school readiness of young children under age five.
At the undergraduate level, students can pursue Vanderbilt’s B.S. in Early Childhood Education with a second major in Child Studies to meet their initial licensing requirements. Requiring 120-credits, the field-oriented program is focused on training teachers to work with young children in nursery schools, preschool programs, and primary grades in on-campus experimental classrooms and local school districts. Graduate students can further their potential by obtaining their M.Ed. degree specialized in Child Studies, Community Development, Education Policy, Independent School Leadership, Reading Education, or Special Education. All of these programs have been approved by the NCATE as well as the Tennessee Department of Education for Praxis testing in grades PreK-3.
Highly regarded as the third largest campus in America, The Ohio State University is a senior public land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant research institution educating more than 63,900 students every year. Along with its main sprawling 1,765 campus in the state’s capital of Columbus, OSU delivers courses in Lima, Mansfield, Marion, Newark, Wooster, and virtually in online degree programs. Named one of the “Public Ivies,” OSU is currently ranked as the 54th best university, 18th top public school, and fifth best college for veterans nationwide by the U.S. News and World Report. The Wall Street Journal ranked Ohio State third nationally for return on investment with an average 170 percent ROI. OSU was also placed 10th among public master’s-level universities for social mobility and community service in Washington Monthly.
Also acclaimed for being the 15th top education school in America, the OSU College of Education and Human Ecology has the mission of preparing professionals who can help children and adults reach their full potential in life’s tennis match. Accredited by the NCATE, the College has been named outstanding by the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis (SABA). The College is prized for having produced over 93,000 teacher leaders and having 58 tenured faculty receive the university’s “Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.” Students can seize the opportunity to perform studies at the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy or join the Reading Recovery initiative to aid first-graders struggling to read.
In an ultra-competitive program, students can receive their initial license to teach in Ohio by earning the Bachelor of Science in Education (B.S.Ed.) for Early Childhood Education. There’s also a non-licensure track available for undergraduate students in Early and Middle Childhood Studies. Graduates can also pursue the one-year accelerated path to licensure by earning the Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Early Childhood Education. Early childhood educators may wish to consider enrolling in the M.A. in Literature for Children and Young Adults program. Advanced students at The Ohio State University can even work towards the Ph.D. in Reading and Literacy for Early Childhood degree to conduct research on reading development.
Affiliated with the United Methodist Church since its founding in 1870, Syracuse University is a major private nonsectarian research institution that is organized into 12 colleges with over 21,200 students total. Standing proudly atop the University Hill on a 683-acre urban campus overlooking downtown Syracuse in the hub of Central New York, SU has had many of its more than 200 academic majors recognized for excellence. The U.S. News and World Report has named SU the 58th best university and 47th top value school in the United States. Forbes magazine has also distinguished SU as the 73rd top research university nationwide with a financial grade of “B.” Syracuse University is ranked the 377th best college globally too.
With a reputation for being the national leader in inclusive urban education, the SU School of Education is proudly crowned the 50th best graduate education school in America. Since pioneering the U.S. inclusion movement, the School has followed the mission of training teachers who can effectively help all learners participate fully in mainstream classrooms. The School has been accredited by the NCATE and has achieved an average pass rate of 96 percent on the New York State teacher certification exams. Every semester, SU hosts the famous Landscape of Urban Education Lecture series. SOE students often join the SU Abroad program to teach internationally in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, Chile, Peru, and more.
Students at the undergraduate level have the chance to attend the exciting B.S. in Inclusive Early Childhood Special Education (IECSE) program from Syracuse. Within the four-year curriculum, students become qualified to receive certification in regular early childhood and teaching students with disabilities from birth through second grade. Online learners may also benefit from receiving the B.S. in Child and Family Studies fully at a distance for working with young children. Opportunity doesn’t stop there because SU also offers a M.S. in Teaching and Leadership degree with a concentration in Early Childhood Special Education. Students in this rigorous full-time 16-month program can qualify for a 33 percent reduction in tuition by receiving the High Needs Scholarship too.
First established in 1869, Purdue University is a prestigious flagship public land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant research institution with six campuses operated from its vast 2,602-acre main campus in the city of West Lafayette, Indiana. Enrolling more than 38,000 students in its over 270 on-campus and online programs, Purdue has historically maintained a focus in science, technology, engineering, and aviation fields. The U.S. News and World Report is now ranked as the 62nd best university, 20th top public school, and eighth best college for veterans in the country. Named the fourth best place to work in academia by The Scientist, Purdue is also honored as the 102nd best university worldwide in Times Higher Education.
For more than a century, the Purdue College of Education has been committed to preparing teachers with rich content knowledge, invigorating instruction skills, and meaningful classroom experiences. In 2015, the College was distinguished as the 38th best graduate education school in the entire United States. Well-known for being a national leader in STEM education, the COE has created the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning of STEM (CATALyST) as well as the Center for Literacy Education and Research (CLEAR). Purdue’s education degree programs offer frequent real-world teaching experiences for academic credit in Indiana and abroad in countries like India or Honduras.
Students wishing to teach in pre-kindergarten, primary, and special education classrooms through third grade are welcome to pursue the B.S. in Early Childhood Education and Exceptional Needs (ECEEN) program at Purdue. In the 120-credit curriculum, students are also prepared for becoming certified as developmental therapists in early intervention. There’s plenty of hands-on experience in the Ben and Maxine Miller Child Development Laboratory School too. Students can pursue this degree at the West Lafayette, Calumet, Fort Wayne, and North Central campuses or fully at a distance as an online early childhood education degree. Scholarships are plentiful through the T.E.A.C.H. program to cut down on the program’s affordable in-state yearly tuition cost of $7,013 further.
Based on a vast 17,000-acre suburban campus in the lively college town of Clemson in the northwestern corner of South Carolina, Clemson University is a major public co-educational land-grant and sea-grant research institution with a legacy tracing back to 1889. Despite its headcount of over 17,200 students, Clemson maintains a student-faculty ratio of 16:1 across its six academic divisions. According to the U.S. News and World Report, Clemson is ranked as the 62nd best university, 20th top public school, and eighth best up-and-coming college nationally. The Princeton Review recognized Clemson for having the nation’s second happiest students and the ninth best career services department. SmartMoney magazine named Clemson seventh in the United States for highest salary returns on investment too.
Partnered with 129 South Carolina schools, the Eugene T. Moore School of Education at Clemson has been accredited by the NCATE and the state to train teachers, counselors, and school leaders for immediate community practice. As home to the nationally acclaimed Call Me MISTER program for African American male students, Clemson has excelled in preparing culturally competent scholar practitioners to promote child growth since 1949. In fact, the SOE has been crowned the 69th best graduate education school in the country. Aspiring preschool teachers can participate in Clemson’s well-established chapters of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), Kappa Delta Pi Honor Society, and/or South Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children (SCAEYC) during their studies.
At Clemson, there’s a B.A. in Early Childhood Education program offered for students wishing to work with children from birth through age eight to foster optimal development during the earliest academic years. In the 120-credit program, students take on a home-school-community perspective to accommodate the learning of diverse children in mathematics, science, social studies, reading, language arts, and creativity. With supervision from expert faculty, early childhood education majors complete a 72-day student teaching internship that exceeds licensing requirements. Graduate students who have already received teacher certification may also further their pedagogical skills by enrolling in Clemson’s M.Ed.in Teaching and Learning with an Early Childhood Education emphasis.
Founded in 1819 as the city’s first higher learning option, the University of Cincinnati is a major comprehensive senior public space-grant research institution nestled on a main 137-acre urban campus in Ohio’s third largest city near the Licking River. Featuring an enrollment of over 43,600 students total, UC is highly acclaimed for its focus on co-operative education across its more than 300 degree-granting programs. The U.S. News and World Report has ranked UC as the 129th best university and 63rd top public school in America. On the top tier, the University of Cincinnati was placed 63rd in North America for the highest number of research publication citations. In fact, the Times Higher Education even granted UC the honor of being in the top 200 global universities.
Also acclaimed for being the nation’s 76th best graduate education division, the UC School of Education has been approved by the NCATE to provide students with the opportunity to receive teaching licensure and broad pedagogical abilities in a wide range of specializations. All of the School’s programs require extensive field experiences with experienced teacher mentors in urban school communities across the Greater Cincinnati area. Since 1925, the Arlitt Child & Family Research and Education Center has been based at UC as one of the country’s oldest and most successful preschool programs. Early childhood educators can obtain hands-on experience conducting studies in the on-campus Literacy Research and Innovation Center (LRIC) as well as its multi-disciplinary teaching laboratory.
At the introductory level, the UC School of Education allows undergraduates to pursue an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) in Early Childhood Care & Education fully online with no-campus visits required over two years full-time. Students can earn their CDA credential by specializing in the Infant-Toddler, Preschool, or Child Care Administration tracks. To delve deeper and receive teaching licensure, the B.S. in Early Childhood Education program is available for UC students wishing to become effective teachers in grades PreK-3. In addition to the on-campus format, there’s an Online Early Childhood Education program to earn the same high-quality bachelor’s degree from the comfort of home while juggling life’s other obligations. An online M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction for Teacher Leader is also offered at UC.
As the Commonwealth’s largest four-year school, George Mason University is a major senior comprehensive public research institution hosting more than 33,900 students in its more than 185 academic degree programs. GMU is located on a main 677-acre suburban campus in Fairfax, Virginia, near the bustling hub of Washington DC with satellite centers in Arlington, Manassas, and abroad in South Korea. Known for academic excellence, GMU is ranked as the 138th best university, 70th top public school, and 10th best up-and-coming college in America by the U.S. News and World Report. With SACS accreditation, George Mason University was also named among Kiplinger’s “Best Values Colleges” and the world’s top 200 by the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).
Although GMU is perhaps best known for its studies in economics, law, and business, the College of Education and Human Development proves that teaching doesn’t lag far behind. In fact, the College was distinguished as the nation’s 46th top education school for graduate students with the 148th best online degree offerings in education. The CEHD has grown considerably in the last decade to provide 27 academic programs at the master’s and doctoral level with approval from the NCATE. Both in-state and out-of-state students qualify for up to 45 percent off the university’s graduate tuition price to eventually teach full-time in Virginia. The CEHD operates with the mission of preparing professionals to promote learning across the lifespan.
Future teachers at George Mason are welcome to enroll in the Early Childhood Education (ECE) program to work with young children and families from diverse backgrounds. In a 30-credit curriculum, there’s the option to earn an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction for Early Childhood Education of Diverse Learners or an M.Ed. in Special Education with a concentration in Early Childhood Special Education. Those needing teacher licensure can complete a 33-credit Graduate Certificate in Early Childhood Special Education with two internships. Some educators may also be interested in earning an online degree to obtain an M.Ed. in Assistive Technology, English as a Second Language Education, Transformative Teaching, Literacy Development, Education Leadership, or Special Education.
Nestled on a beautiful 320-acre urban campus in the Manoa Valley near Ala Moana within just three miles inland from downtown Honolulu, the University of Hawaii – Manoa is the state’s flagship comprehensive public land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant research institution. Enrolling more than 19,900 students every year, UH Manoa is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) to award degrees in 19 distinctive colleges. The U.S. News and World Report has ranked UH Manoa as the 168th best university and 93rd top public school in the United States. It’s also been listed among the nation’s top 50 public universities for federal research funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Featuring more than 350 highly experienced full-time faculty, the College of Education at UH Manoa strives to provide innovative and stimulating programs for preparing students as licensed teachers across the Hawaiian Islands. With the NCATE stamp of approval, the College is currently acclaimed for being the 76th best graduate education school in the country. In the latest survey, 94 percent of graduates declared that their education degree made them more effective teachers and 97 percent of employers were impressed with graduates’ skills. In fact, the College of Education has maintained an above-average pass rate of 98 percent on the Praxis I & II exams. UH Manoa also has created a partnership with Sendai University for students wishing to spend time teaching in northern Japan.
There’s no lack of opportunity for aspiring early childhood educators attending the University of Hawaii – Manoa. At the undergraduate level, students can choose from two dual programs to earn a B.Ed. in Early Childhood and Early Childhood Special Education or a B.Ed. in Elementary Education and Early Childhood Education. Both programs lead to initial teaching licensure after completing 120 credits and a student-teaching semester. Graduate students can also enroll in the College of Education to obtain their M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education in a hybrid format of campus-based and online courses. Teachers progress through this program as a cohort group to complete 30 credits over the course of 30 months part-time in summer.
Since being created as a normal school for teachers in 1903 by Dwight B. Waldo, Western Michigan University has grown dramatically into a comprehensive four-year public research institution to educate more than 23,900 students annually. Offering more than 180 degree programs, WMU stands at the midway point between the big cities of Detroit and Chicago on a vast 1,200-acre urban campus in Kalamazoo. The U.S. News and World Report survey has crowned WMU as the 173rd best university, 97th top public school, and 58th best college for veterans nationwide. Washington Monthly magazine also distinguished WMU as the 90th top master’s-level institution in America for encouraging social responsibility and ethics.
Boasting nearly $300,000 in scholarship funding every academic year, the College of Education is the #1 producer of master’s degrees at Western Michigan University. After all, the COE is recognized as the 136th best graduate education school with the nation’s 107th top online graduate teaching degrees. Not only does the College require that all students complete an internship or field experience in their degree’s curriculum, but it’s also the only university in Michigan hosting a TeachLive laboratory. With around 100 full-time faculty, the College builds on its century-old tradition of preparing exceptional professionals for impacting societal growth in education. Early childhood educators who already have an associate’s degree from one of five Michigan community colleges can seamlessly transfer to WMU.
Undergraduate students at Western Michigan have the option to earn a B.S. in Early Childhood and Elementary Education for receiving teaching licensure to teach in preschool and young fives programs statewide. Those looking for a track beyond teaching could also consider the Online B.S. in Child and Family Development program and unlock the opportunity to become a Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE). At the graduate level, individuals can follow the pathway to receive a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) or a M.A. in the Practice of Teaching with concentrations in Early Childhood Education for ZS endorsement. All of these WMU programs are fully approved for excellence by the NCATE and NAEYC.
Comprised of seven degree-granting schools, Northern Illinois University is a large comprehensive public research institution that was initially founded by Governor John P. Altgeld in 1895. In addition to its main 945-acre urban campus in the city of DeKalb just outside the Chicagoland, NIU has satellite campuses in Hoffman Estates, Rockford, Naperville, out-of-state in Oregon, and online from anywhere. Maintaining a strong student body of over 21,100, NIU is currently ranked as the 194th best university and 110th top public school in America by the U.S. News and World Report. NIU is also named the third best public university in Illinois by Forbes magazine in terms of its affordability and student productivity after graduation.
Distinguished for hosting the third best graduate online education degrees nationwide, the NIU College of Education is one of a few schools of its kind to receive a score of 90 or higher for student engagement, faculty credentials, peer reputation, and admissions selectivity. The College maintains the overall mission of preparing premier professional teachers and school leaders for the 21st century. Passing the NCATE standards, the COE enrolls students from 44 countries to confer upwards of 700 education degrees annually. Northern Illinois University is also renowned for offering high-achieving student chapters for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), Illinois Education Association (IEA), and Council for Exceptional Children (CEC).
NIU students seeking to become preschool teachers have the ability to earn a B.S. in Early Childhood Studies within an innovative 120-credit curriculum that blends classroom instruction with field experiences and group assignments. All graduates will be qualified to earn the Illinois Preschool Special Education Approval, but a few extra courses can be added to receive the English as a Second Language endorsement for PreK-3 too. Those who already have a bachelor’s degree can enroll in the M.S.Ed. degree for Early Childhood Education for initial teaching licensure with children to age eight. Graduate certificates are also available for NIU students in Assistive Technology, Behavior Specialist, Children’s Literature/Media, Curriculum Adaptations, Literacy Development, Multiple Disabilities, and Response to Intervention.
Shaping Young Children’s Minds for a Bright Future
Teachers in early childhood education have the power to significantly influence a young child’s development and determine their level of success later on. Studies have shown that children who receive good early childhood education require fewer public services over their lifetime. After all, children who don’t attend preschool are 25 percent more likely to drop out of high school and 70 percent more likely to be incarcerated for violence. That means that individuals with a vocational calling for preschool teaching often make the biggest impact on our nation’s future generation of citizens and leaders. Earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in early childhood education is the perfect way to build the creativity, classroom management skills, and teaching strategies needed to educate a school’s youngest youngsters. Keep in mind these top 10 early childhood education degree programs when finding the ideal program match for realizing your potential in child development.
Check out our Top Online Education Degree Programs