The early education benefit

Preschool attendance tied to higher future earnings in low and middle income children

Much of the research on the long-term effects of high-quality early education has focused on children from low-income families. What about children from middle class families? A new working paper suggests that both low-income and middle class children who attended a high-quality pre-kindergarten program will experience greater earnings as adults, and the projected increase in dollar amounts is similar for both groups of children.

In “Earnings Benefits of Tulsa’s Pre-K Program,” economist Tim Bartik of the Upjohn Institute and William T. Gormley and Shirley Adelstein of Georgetown University’s Center for Research on Children in the U.S. apply the research of Harvard economist Raj Chetty to predict the future earnings of preschool children.

The authors estimate, for instance, an increase in earnings of $27,139 for children in Tulsa’s full-day pre-k program who were eligible for free lunch and a $24,610 increase for middle class children not eligible for subsidized meals. They also estimate benefits for children in the half-day program – a $17,643 increase for children eligible for free lunch and a $16,539 boost for middle class children.

“Our analysis offers some plausible estimates of future earnings effects for a high‐quality pre‐K program that reaches children from both more and less advantaged households,” the researchers write. “It also illuminates benefit and cost differentials for programs that vary in their dosage (half‐day versus full‐day) and for programs that vary in their beneficiaries (free versus reduced versus no subsidized school lunch). What is most striking about these benefit cost comparisons is not the modest variations by dosage and child poverty but rather the striking similarities. For all children, irrespective of income and irrespective of program duration, the earnings‐related benefits alone of a high-quality pre-K program outweigh the costs by 3 to 1 or 4 to 1.” Add other measures beyond future earnings, they note, and the benefits are likely higher, particularly for disadvantaged children.

Bartik, in his Investing in Kids blog, offers several hypotheses to explain the jump in future earnings for children from middle class families.

“There are some good reasons why pre-K might have large effects on children from middle-class families,” Bartik writes. “First, even for middle-class families, a good pre-K program might enhance so-called ‘soft skills’ or social skills. Many of these soft skills are important for future labor market success. Such soft skills might be difficult to enhance in early childhood through good parenting alone, without some social skills development in group settings such as a pre-K program.

“Second, given the nature of the income distribution, even modest increases in educational attainment may have large effects for children from middle-class families,” he continues. “The dollar increase in earnings from attaining a college degree (versus a high school degree) is over twice the dollar increase in earnings from attaining a high school degree (versus being a high school dropout).  Therefore, even if pre-K affects a fewer percentage of middle class kids (compared to low-income kids) by increasing their educational attainment, it may have large dollar effects if it has larger effects on college degrees for the middle class group.”

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Yet, as the latest report from the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies notes, high-quality early education is often so expensive that middle-class families have trouble affording it. Pre-K Now addressed the issue in the 2008 report “The Pre-K Pinch: Early Education and the Middle Class.” “For far too many middle-class families,” Pre-K Now states, “the very program proven to help all young children enter school ready to learn and succeed is beyond their reach.”

Irene Sege, director of communications at Strategies for Children and its Early Education for All Campaign , blogs at Eye on Early Education .