Children enrolled in universal pre-K programs more likely to attend college, Georgetown research shows

New results from a long-running Georgetown University study on the effects of early childhood education highlight one of the earliest factors in students’ educational trajectory, finding that children in high-quality, universal pre-K programs are more likely to graduate from high school on time, enroll in college, and be more civically engaged.

Evaluating the long-term effects of pre-K

The McCourt School of Public Policy’s Center for Research on Children in the United States (CROCUS) conducted a 20-year study of students who attended Tulsa’s high-quality pre-K program, free of charge to all four-year-olds in Oklahoma. Led by CROCUS’s co-directors, Dr. Bill Gormley and Dr. Deborah Phillips, a multidisciplinary team of researchers followed a cohort of more than 4,033 Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) students who entered kindergarten in the fall of 2006. Some of those students attended TPS pre-K or Head Start, while others were not enrolled in either program. 

The study showed that in high school, former pre-K students were less likely to fail classes and repeat a grade and were more likely to take advanced courses. They were also 12% more likely than children who didn’t attend the pre-K program to enroll in both two- and four-year colleges. Early childhood education also improved their cognitive and socio-emotional skills, linked to voter registration and voting later in life. 

Investing in early childhood education

Absent federal legislation to fund universal early childhood education, a half dozen of states, the District of Columbia, and a growing number of cities have universal pre-K programs for three- and four-year-old children. Researchers from CROCUS and the Upjohn Institute estimate that the benefits from high-quality pre-K programs like those in Tulsa exceed the costs by 2.65 to 1, based on adult earnings extrapolated from high school graduation and college enrollment data. Although middle-class students benefit from pre-K programs, disadvantaged students benefit more, Gormley tells The 74.

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