Early Learning Scholarships

Early Learning Scholarships increase access to high-quality early childhood programs for 3- and 4-year-old children with the highest needs to improve school readiness for all young children. Scholarships provide support for children to attend a high-quality early learning program as rated through Parent Aware, Minnesota's quality rating and improvement system. Children birth to age 2 are eligible if identified as being in one or more of the following priority populations:

  • Child of a teen parent;
  • Currently in foster care;
  • In need of child protective services;
  • Experienced homelessness in the last 24 months.

Families must meet eligibility requirements as outlined in Minnesota Statutes, section 124D.165.

At this time, up to $7,500 per scholarship will be awarded. We estimate that funding will support approximately 11,000 scholarships per year, statewide.

Following an extensive stakeholder engagement process and a detailed review of the current cap of $7,500 for a Four-Star Parent Aware-Rated program for an early learning scholarship, Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker has determined that an increase in the cap is warranted. In accordance with the statutory language, the cap will first be increased for FY 2021 for children who have a priority status of being the child of a teen parent under the age of 21 pursuing a high school diploma or GED; in foster care; in need of child protection services; or experiencing homelessness within the last 24 months. The scholarship award cap will be phased in, beginning with up to $10,000 for a Four-Star Parent Aware-Rated program and $7,500 for a Three-Star for just scholars with priority status. With incremental increases based on available funding, the goal is to increase the scholarship cap to eventually align with the Child Care Market Rate study at the 75th percentile. In FY 2022, the raised cap may be expanded to include the general population of scholarship recipients as funds allow. 
Questions about a specific child’s scholarship should be directed to the awarding Area Administrator if a Pathway I scholarship or the awarding program if a Pathway II scholarship.

There are two pathways to an early learning scholarship:

Early Learning Scholarships - Pathway I

Pathway I scholarships are awarded directly to families who meet eligibility requirements. Families must have a child between the ages of 3 and 4 as of September 1 of the current year or meet the criteria for priority populations for children from birth to 2 years old.  All  children must meet other eligibility requirements outlined in Minnesota Statutes, section 124D.165. 
Pathway I scholarship funds are paid to the early childhood program that the family chooses. The program must be participating in the Parent Aware Quality Rating and Improvement System and may include Head Start, school district prekindergarten and preschool programs and child care programs. Pathway I scholarships “follow the child” and are awarded to the family for up to 12 months at a time with a renewal option each year as long as the child remains age-eligible.

Families interested in applying for a Pathway I early learning scholarship should contact the Area Administrator serving their county. Learn more about Area Administrators and eligibility.

Note: Starting July 1, 2024, Early Learning Scholarships - Pathway I can be used only at programs with a Three- or Four-Star Parent Aware rating.

Early Learning Scholarships - Pathway II

Pathway II scholarships are awarded to families through an eligible Four-Star Parent Aware Rated program that has been granted Pathway II funds. These include Head Start, school district prekindergarten and preschool programs, and child care programs. Child eligibility for Pathway II scholarships is the same as Pathway I. Pathway II scholarships are paid directly to the early childhood program that awarded the scholarship.

Families interested in applying for an Early Learning Scholarship - Pathway II scholarship should contact Pathway II-funded programs in their area. Please see the "Early Learning Scholarship Pathway II Funded Programs by Program Name FY 2020 document" in the Early Learning Scholarship Participation section below. 

For more information on Parent Aware, please visit the Parent Aware website.  

For more information on the Early Learning Scholarships Program, please contact our office at MDE.ELScholarships@state.mn.us


COVID-19 Guidance for Early Learning Scholarships

MDE will ensure children and programs who receive state early learning scholarships continue to be served and funded.

Early Learning Scholarships policy modifications due to the impact of COVID-19, effective October 1, 2020:
  • Absent days will not be counted towards the 25 maximum absent day policy in order for families to make individual decisions that are best for their families. Absent days should be reported on invoice forms and in the Early Learning Scholarship Administration System (ELSA) but will not be counted towards the maximum number of absent days until further notice. Families do not need to submit a medical exemption form for this to apply. Effective October 1, 2020, for Pathway I scholarships, families shall inform the Area Administrator about their plans at least every 30 days until the child returns to the primary program. Area Administrators will send a one-time COVID-19 Absent Day Exemption Policy Letter that confirms the family’s intent and informs the family how their scholarship will continue to be used. Parents of children enrolled in a program with a Pathway II scholarship shall inform their program of their intent at least every 30 days until the child returns to the program. 
  • Effective October 1, 2020, programs may request a paid closure period of up to 30 days to do any procedures they need to in order to reopen safely. MDE can consider an extension not to exceed an additional 30 days as needed based on local data and circumstances. Payment to the program is only considered if the program closed due to COVID-19 with intent to reopen. Scholarship payment will not be made to a program if they are open but, due to capacity limitations, are not serving the child with the scholarship. Public programs shall follow MDE and/or Head Start federal guidance for distance learning during this period of time and may switch to a different learning model rather than closing. Programs requesting payment for a closure period should inform the Area Administrator of their intent to close and the start date via the Early Learning Scholarships – COVID-19 Paid Closure Survey. Pathway II school-based and Head Start programs should send an email to MDE.PathwayII@state.mn.us with the closure start date and continue to follow the ELSA procedures for recording closure days. Programs that close and will continue to request scholarship payments must clearly communicate this to their enrolled families with scholarships so families are aware of the impact on their scholarship. 
  • As funds allow, a child’s scholarship may be temporarily increased if the regularly attended (primary) program closes and the child attends a secondary eligible program as back-up. This policy modification allows some children to have more than the maximum award amount for the current scholarship year. Area Administrators should follow the guidance previously provided by MDE for paying two programs at the same time. Please note: This policy modification item has not been updated since it became effective on March 16, 2020.
Guidance related to Early Learning Scholarships implementation under different safe learning delivery models is provided in the 2020-21 Planning Guidance for Minnesota Public Schools document, available on the COVID-19 Updates webpage. Please reference the Table of Contents within the guidance document to find the Early Learning section.

Program Guidance