Is universal, public preschool good for children? Is it worth spending billions of dollars on, or will that money be thrown at something that doesn’t have much of an impact? A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research offers a resounding answer: universal, public preschool helps students who attend and brings them important benefits that last long into their lives. Public preschool for all can reduce behavior issues in the elementary and middle school years and increase the likelihood that students graduate high school and attend college.
The researchers who wrote the study, economists Guthrie Gray-Lobe, Parag A. Pathak and Christopher R. Walters, were able to take advantage of a natural experiment to come to this conclusion. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Boston, Massachusetts implemented a large, full-day preschool program through its public school system that is nominally universal—open to families of all income levels—but still so constrained by capacity that it only serves about half of the city’s four-year-olds. The programs are housed in public school buildings and staffed by teachers who have to meet the same certification and educational requirements as other public school teachers. They’re high quality, ranking 6th out of 40 citywide programs across the country.
Given that not every child can get a seat in preschool, families have to rank their top choices of schools in order of preference, and in some cases ties between students vying for the same slot have to be broken through random lotteries. That allowed the authors to compare preschoolers who either did or didn’t get to attend the schools. Because the only difference between them was the result of the lottery, it makes for an ideal way to compare the effects. There was also follow up data long into those children’s lives, allowing the researchers to determine what happened to them two decades after they left preschool.
What they found is that, overall, children who attended public preschool in the city saw significant benefits much later in their lives. They were 9 percent more likely to graduate high school. They were also 9 percentage points more likely to take the SAT and were 3.6 percentage points more likely to score in the top quartile on the test.
They were then 18 percent more likely to enroll in college the fall after they graduated high school. They were also 5.4 percentage points more likely to enroll in college at all and were more likely to graduate. In other words, the children who attended Boston’s preschool program were far more likely to graduate high school and college than those who missed out.
Interestingly, the researchers didn’t find many educational impacts in the many years between preschool and high school, such as increasing test scores or reducing the need to repeat a grade or receive special education. They found no evidence of improvements in academic performance in elementary, middle or even high school, only finding their big results as the children were readying to graduate. But they did find that students who had gone to public preschool had improved disciplinary measures during those intervening years, such as a reduction in suspensions and incarceration. All told, they found that having attended preschool improved disciplinary measures by .17 standard deviations. This, they posit, offers evidence that even if preschool programs don’t improve test scores in the short term, the impact they have on students’ behavior can have educational ramifications later on.
The findings are significant and could change the tenor of the debate over whether and how much to invest in early childhood education. Most previous studies have only been able to look at smaller programs, and they tend to focus on more immediate outcomes, such as improvements in elementary school. This study offers evidence that there may be “persistent effects on skill formation that ultimately result in higher educational attainment,” the authors write.
Other studies have also found long-lasting, positive benefits of public preschool. Perhaps the most famous are those done by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who looked at the Perry Preschool program in Michigan. He found that children who attended were less likely to be incarcerated and more likely to be employed and earn more long into their lives. Every dollar spent on this program, he found, returned anywhere between $60 to $300 dollars in financial benefits to the students by the time they reached age 65 and $7 to $12 back to society. He even recently found that the students’ children benefited from improvements in their own educational and economic outcomes.
But Heckman was examining a small, very high-quality program. It was just two years of two-and-a-half hour classes, supplemented by weekly home visits from teachers to parents, for about 100 children. The curriculum was quite robust. Critics have argued that those findings can’t be applied broadly and that we can’t be sure we’ll reap the same rewards from wide scale universal preschool programs.
This paper, by contrast, examines a much larger, broader, public preschool program. “Boston’s program shares important features with other publicly-funded state and local preschool programs, so our estimates seem relevant for evaluating contemporary proposals for public preschool expansion,” the authors write. The results of this study, they write, “illustrat[e] the potential for modern public preschool programs to improve long-term outcomes.”
The findings couldn’t have come at a more politically opportune time. President Joe Biden has proposed spending $200 billion over ten years to ensure free, high-quality preschool for all of the country’s three- and four-year-olds as part of his American Families Plan, the second half of his large infrastructure proposal. Biden’s proposal, if implemented, could conceivably reap even more rewards than what the authors of this study found. Many of the Boston programs were only half day, and the researchers only looked at four-year-olds who attended. Biden wants to offer all American children full-day preschool for both ages three and four.
That would be a dramatic change from the way things are now. According to the latest report from the National Institute for Early Education Research, more than 3.5 million three- and four-year-olds still don’t attend preschool in a classroom, and progress is stalling out. Enrollment increased just one-tenth of a percentage point between the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years.
Congress will now have to debate whether to prioritize spending resources on universal preschool. But this study offers clear evidence that, should it choose to do so, it’s an investment that will likely create huge dividends.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Slate, and others, and she won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets. She was previously Economic Editor at ThinkProgress, Editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog, and a contributor at Forbes. She also worked as a financial reporter and head of the energy sector at mergermarket, an online newswire that is part of the Financial Times group.