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Pre-K as an Investment

Education data and research analysis from Edvantia

Cost-benefit analysis. High yield. Economic return. Such phrases from the world of finance have been cropping up in recent reports and articles on preschool education. What kind of yields can be expected on pre-K investments? As a financial advisor might say, "It depends on the quality of the investments."

A growing body of evidence suggests preschool programs can yield long-term cognitive, social and economic benefits, especially for children living in poverty--but only if the programs are of high quality. When Lawrence Schweinhart examined well-known longitudinal studies of programs that produced lasting effects, he found that such programs share three characteristics: they engage children in active learning, involve parents as partners in supporting their children's development, and provide professional development and supportive curriculum supervision to teachers.

Payoffs for children and society A 37-year longitudinal study of randomly assigned participants in the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project found that 40-year-olds who had attended the program were more likely than control-group non-attenders (who received no preschool) to complete high school, earn more money, and own their own homes. Participants were less likely to need special education, receive welfare, or be arrested.

A follow-up study of the highly respected Abecedarian Project in North Carolina found that participants, at age 21, compared to a control group, completed more years of education, scored higher in reading and math through high school and beyond, and were twice as likely to attend college. Participants were also 74 percent less likely to become teen mothers.

A 15-year longitudinal study of Chicago's Parent-Child Centers found participants to have a high school completion rate 29 percent higher than those in a comparison group of non-attenders. Among participants, grade retention was 40 percent lower, and the need for special education was 41 percent lower.

Economist Robert Lynch asserts that findings from these carefully controlled studies counter earlier findings, based solely on IQ test scores, that the benefits of quality preschool participation fade over time. Lynch's view was reinforced by Geoffrey Nelson and colleagues' 2003 meta-analysis of longitudinal research on 34 preschool programs for disadvantaged children, which found small to moderate positive effects on children's cognitive and social-emotional functioning and parent-family wellness. Nelson found stronger effect sizes with increased program duration and intensity.

Economic payoffs Cost-benefit analyses compared measurable benefits--such as reductions in crime costs, public school costs and welfare spending; and participants' increases in earnings and taxes paid on earnings--to total program cost. Benefit-cost ratios were 3.78-to-1 for Abecedarian, 7.14-to-1 for the Chicago program, and 17.07-to-1 for Perry Preschool. In other words, each dollar invested in one of the programs generated at least $3.78 in benefits.

A 2003 study of the Perry Preschool Project from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis determined that the annual real rate of return on public investments in the program was 16 percent (12 percent for the non-participating public and government and 4 percent for participants).

The fine print Few randomized trials have been conducted in early childhood education. Evidence suggests that providing quality preschool programs will reduce but not eliminate the magnitude of cognitive, social and economic problems. Studies also suggest long-term benefits are greatest among underprivileged students. The longitudinal studies cited above involved poor and minority students., 800-624-9120


FPG Child Development Institute. (2005). The Carolina Abecedarian Project [Web page].

Gotts, E. (1989). HOPE, preschool to graduation: Contributions to parenting and school-family relations theory and practice (Final Report). Charleston, WV: AEL.

Lynch, R. G. (2004). Exceptional returns: Economic, fiscal and social benefits of investment in early childhood development. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Lynch, R. G. (2005). Early childhood investment yields big payoff (Policy Perspectives). San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

Masse, L. N., & Barnett, W. S. (2002). A benefit cost analysis of the Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research.

National Institute for Early Education Research (n.d.) How important is "high quality," and what do we mean by "high quality"? [Web page].

Nelson, G., Westhues, A., & MacLeod, J. (2003). A meta-analysis of longitudinal research on preschool prevention programs for children. Prevention & Treatment, 6(31).

Reynolds, A. J., Temple, J. A., Robertson, D. L., & Mann, E. A. (2001). Long-term effects of an early childhood intervention on educational achievement and juvenile arrest: A 15-year follow-up of low-income children in public schools. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(18), pp. 2339-2345.

Reynolds, A. J., Temple, J. A., Robertson, D. L., and Mann, E. A. (2002). Age 21 cost-benefit analysis of the Title I Chicago Child-Parent Centers. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(4), 267-303.

Schweinhart, L. J. (1994). Lasting benefits of preschool programs (ERIC Digest). Champaign, IL: Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Schweinhart, L. J. (2005). The High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age 40: Summary, conclusions, and frequently asked questions. Yspilanti, MI: High/Scope Educational Research Foundation.

Family Connections Pre-K is a set of research-based, take-home learning guides that preschool programs and schools can use to involve families in their children's early learning. View sample issues and download the teacher handbook at