The Long-Term Payoffs of Early Education Programs

babies in school

There have been multiple studies showing that early learning and quality comprehensive services for children is beneficial for their future. We also know it is crucial to work with and support parents so they can better take care of themselves and their families. The Early Head Start Impact Study (2006) found that when children and their families receive comprehensive services from birth, the results for 3- and 4-year-olds are better than for those who do not receive those services early on.

A 2016 study from University of Chicago and the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center found that high quality early education programs might be the greatest investment into the future of our country's workforce. According to the study that followed participants for 35 years, programs for children birth to 5-years-old resulted in adults who are healthier, earning higher incomes, and less involved in crime. The study showed a positive impact especially on boys and their families.

Breaking Down the Studies

The researchers analyzed two identical, random-controlled preschool studies done in both programs in the 1970s that collected data on the students' cognitive and socio-emotional skills, home environments, family structure, and family economic characteristics until the age of 8 and then collected similar data from the children at ages 12, 15, 21 and 30.

The researchers found that exposing children to a quality early education program had a positive impact on heath indicators, employment and labor income.

 The researchers also used supplementary data, such as criminal outcomes obtained from public records and self-reported crime data to get a full picture on just how beneficial quality early education can be on quality of life.

The results from the study were produced into a paper called “The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program,” which determined that spending money on high-quality early childhood education for at-risk children, as well as employment support for their mothers, can yield a 13 percent return on the investment every year, even after adjusting for the public costs of the program.

The cost-benefit is $6.30 for every dollar spent, based on long-term benefits including reduced taxpayer costs for crime, welfare and healthcare, along with a better-prepared workforce.

In earlier studies, Nobel Prize winning labor economist James Heckman found that quality preschool for 3-and 4-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds yields a 7 to 10 percent annual return. In his new study, Heckman found high-quality programs from birth to age 5 can deliver a 13 percent per-child, per-year return on investment through reduced crime and health costs and improved rates of education, civic engagement and employment. Early exposure to quality child care with engaged childcare providers paid off with boost in IQ that followed children into adulthood. “We found most of the growth in IQ in terms of cognitive skills has taken place by age 3,” said Heckman. Past research on pre-k programs didn’t show any lasting improvements in IQ, but ut the IQ gains to the children in the North Carolina programs lasted through the final IQ measurement at age 21.

What Does This Mean for You?

The takeaway on raising IQ in children is the sooner children are exposed to education, the better it is. Heckman stated “That lasting effect in cognition, combined with increased social and emotional skills that are known to drive achievement, were factors in better outcomes and returns on investment.”

One negative is that birth-to-5 programs are expensive. The programs in the study cost about $18,500 per year per child. However, high-quality early childhood programs allow working parents to build their careers and increase their wages over time while their child develops a broad range of fundamental skills that lead to lifelong success. "Heckman states that "investing in the continuum of learning from birth to age 5 not only impacts each child, but it also strengthens our country’s workforce today and prepares future generations to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.”

Researchers hope the findings will encourage presidential administrations to pay attention to early childhood education and increase the quality of and access to early education on a national level.