Mother kneeling down to little girl at school

Family Experiences with the Child Care Assistance Program and Early Learning Scholarships in Minnesota

Research BriefEarly ChildhoodSep 19 2023

The cost of child care has continued to rise in the United States, outpacing inflation rates in 2021.[i] Many families dedicate a large proportion of their income to paying child care costs—in Minnesota, families who pay for care spend an average of 18 percent of their income on child care.[ii] While this poses a challenge for all families, families with low incomes may face significant barriers.[iii] Minnesota offers several programs to help families pay for child care.

The Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) provides financial assistance to help families in Minnesota with low incomes[1] pay for child care and to support children’s development. Consistent with the goals of the federal Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) program, CCAP aims to support families’ choice of providers that meet their child care needs. The Early Learning Scholarship (ELS) program is funded through state funds and aims to increase access to high-quality child care in Minnesota. Similar to CCAP, once eligibility is determined for the ELS (Pathway I),[2],[3] the family selects a provider and payment is sent directly to the provider from regional administrative offices. However, there are several areas in which these two programs differ that may lead to families having distinct experiences: eligibility requirements, size of payments, whether a parent work activity is required, the type of provider allowed, and the child age groups covered all vary between the two programs. 

As part of the Minnesota Child Care Policy Research Partnership—a federally funded partnership between Child Trends, the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Department of Human Services—the research team administered two surveys to families with children enrolled in early care and education (ECE) programs across the state of Minnesota. These surveys aimed to capture the experiences and perceptions that families have of CCAP and ELS, including the level of support that they receive and what additional supports may be needed. Furthermore, we were interested in how experiences may vary between the two types of financial assistance (CCAP and ELS). Thus, this brief explores parent experiences with CCAP and ELS to enhance our understanding of families’ access to child care and what additional supports may be needed.


[1] For a household of two, the income threshold is $37,581. See

[2] In Minnesota, there are two kinds of Early Learning Scholarships, Pathway I and Pathway II. Pathway I scholarships are awarded directly to eligible families and families can use them at any Parent Aware Rated program. Pathway II scholarships are awarded directly to the program and programs are able to direct the Pathway II funds to pay for care for children whose families are eligible to receive funds. For the purpose of this research, only families who receive the Pathway I scholarship were recruited to participate; therefore, only findings about families receiving Pathway I scholarships are discussed.

[3] Income requirements for Pathway I are equal to or less than 185% of the federal poverty level. See



Suggested Citation

Keaton, H., Dao, Q. (2023). Family Experiences with the Child Care Assistance Program and Early Learning Scholarships in Minnesota. Child Trends.