Why Universal Pre-K is So Important

Education Policy Brief #59 | By: Lynn Waldsmith | September 21, 2021

Header photo taken from: Boston Public Schools




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Policy Summary

The evidence is overwhelming that children who attend preschool not only dramatically improve the quality of their own lives but the welfare of their communities. Yet, far too many kids aren’t able to attend because their parents simply can’t afford it. President Biden is hoping to change that by making universal pre-K a reality, if Congress passes the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan.

The Plan calls for the federal government to invest $200 billion in universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds through a national partnership with states, with states having to pay for about half of the cost when universal pre-K is fully operational. Such an investment would benefit an estimated 5 million children and save the average family $13,000.

It’s no secret that the most important years for a child’s learning and development occur from birth to age 5. And while many wealthy countries already provide free and broad access to preschool education, the United States merely offers a patchwork of private and public programs, making access to pre-kindergarten dependent on where children live and how much their parents earn.

In fact, only a handful of states and cities currently offer universal pre-K programs, including Vermont, Florida, New York City and the District of Columbia. These programs offer access to all children, though enrollment is not mandatory. Meanwhile, Colorado voters approved a tax on tobacco and vape products last year that will fund universal, free preschool for all 4-year-olds in Colorado beginning in 2023.

According to the National Institute For Early Childhood Research, about half of all 3-year-olds and a third of all 4-year-olds in the United States were not enrolled in preschool in 2019. The drought of universal pre-K programs hits children of color even harder. The Education Trust says only 1 percent of Latino children and 4 percent of Black children in the 26 states it recently analyzed are enrolled in state preschool programs.

Policy Analysis

A body of solid research has consistently shown how universal preschool benefits kids, families and society. For example, about 20 years ago (between 1997 and 2003) approximately 4,000 4-year-olds participated in a preschool lottery in Boston. Economists Christopher R. Walters, Guthrie Gray-Lobe and Parag A. Pathak studied the Boston school data surrounding these now 20-somethings, both those who attended the preschool program and those who didn’t.

They found that the children who attended just one year of preschool were less likely to get suspended from school, less likely to skip class and had a high school graduation rate of 70 percent – 6 percentage points higher than the kids who weren’t lucky enough to be selected for preschool. More than half of the preschoolers – 54 percent – went to college, eight percentage points higher than their counterparts who didn’t go to preschool. These results were bigger for boys than for girls.

But going to preschool does not necessarily translate to better performance on standardized tests. Research suggests that preschool helps kids develop “non-cognitive skills,” like emotional and social intelligence, grit and respect for the rules.

“The combination of findings — that we don’t see an impact on test scores, but we do see an impact on these behavioral outcomes and the likelihood of attending college — is consistent with this idea that there’s some kind of behavioral or socio-emotional, non-cognitive impact from preschool,” says Christopher Walters, an economist at UC Berkeley who co-authored the study.


Photo taken from: American Public Media

One of the most famous studies measuring the effects of preschool education is the Perry Preschool Project, which was conducted in Ypsilanti, Michigan by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman. He has been conducting experiments and studying the results of the program from the 1960s until just a few years ago. The program provided two years of high-quality preschool for disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds.

Heckman found that the kids who participated were less likely to get arrested, to go on welfare or to be unemployed as adults. They also earned significantly more. In 2019, Heckman and his colleagues concluded that even the children of the children who attended the Perry preschool had markedly better outcomes in life.

For every dollar the Perry Preschool project invested in kids there was a return on investment of 7-10 percent per year, Heckman estimates, through increased economic gains for the kids and decreased public spending on them through other social programs when they got older. In fact, “the Heckman Curve” maintains that the government gets a better return on its investment the earlier it provides resources to educate people. In other words, teaching toddlers is more powerful than educating older students in high school, college or in job-training programs.

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Photo taken from: CNN

Other advantages of universal preschool education include more diverse learning environments and encouraging parents to become more involved in their children’s education.

The COVID 19 pandemic seems to have made the idea of universal pre-K largely a nonpartisan issue. However Biden’s pre-K proposal still has a long way to go. There are concerns that expanding public preschool options may hurt the quality and availability of infant and toddler care. And, of course, the biggest concern is the cost.

Politicians will argue whether $200 billion is too much or too little, but the bottom line is that all kids can benefit from high quality universal pre-K, though disadvantaged children will likely benefit even more.

“We can’t be afraid of the size of the budget that’s required,” said Mary King, a professor of economics emerita at Portland State University. King told the education news outlet EdSurge that compared to the funding needed for K-12 schools, it’s a drop in the bucket. “It’s just a few years of education, and it’s critical that whatever we do is high-quality.”

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.


President Biden’s plan for universal pre-school:



The Education Trust report on how children of color and low-income children most lack access to pre-school programs:



“The Long-Term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston”:


“Intergenerational and Intragenerational Externalities of the Perry Preschool Project”:


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The Heckman Curve:


“The Effects of Tulsa’s Pre-K Program on Middle School Student Performance”:


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“The Impacts of Expanding Access to High-Quality Preschool Education”:


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“The Effects of Universal Preschool in Washington, D.C.”:


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