The research on early childhood education can seem as messy as a playground sandbox. Some studies show that preschool produces remarkable academic and social benefits for low-income children, and some don’t. One 2022 study found that children who went to preschool in Tennessee ended up worse off, on average, than those who stayed home. Even among success stories, the benefits of preschool can be fleeting. Children who didn’t go to preschool still learn their letters and catch up. By third grade, the gap between those with and without preschool often disappears.
But a more coherent story is taking shape with the latest 15-year milestone of a large, long-term study of 4,000 children who attended Tulsa, Oklahoma’s preschool program. In 1998, Oklahoma became the first state to offer free public prekindergarten for all four-year-olds. Tulsa’s program was heralded for being well run and well funded, with an expenditure that would be the equivalent of $12,000 per child in today’s dollars. Researchers studied the children who attended in 2005-06 and saw an immediate academic bang, followed by disappointments. Children without preschool managed to catch up to those who went to preschool. But in high school, an advantage for the preschoolers re-emerged. They were taking harder classes and more of them were graduating high school on time.
In the latest study, published in January 2023, children who went to preschool were far more likely to go to college within a couple years of graduating high school.
“Don’t give up on the protagonist until the story is told,” said William Gormley, a professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University and co-director of its Center for Research on Children in the United States, which has overseen much of the Tulsa research. “This is a classic story of a big bounce from pre-K in the short run, followed by disappointing fade out in standardized test scores in the median run, followed by all sorts of intriguing, positive effects in the longer run, and culminating in truly stunning positive effects on college enrollment.”
Earlier research has also found long-term benefits from preschool. Studies of the Perry preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan and the Abecedarian preschool in Chapel Hill, North Carolina documented higher levels of educational attainment and higher earnings for children who attended. But those were tiny preschool programs for low-income children dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. A more recent study published in 2018 of low-income preschool centers in Chicago linked attendance in the 1980s to higher rates of earning college degrees 30 years later.
The advent of universal preschool for all children is more recent. It’s not clear whether these newer and much larger programs will also produce long-term benefits. So far, a 2021 study of Boston’s universal pre-K program found that students who attended the city’s preschools between 1997 and 2003 were more likely to go to college immediately after high school.
In Tulsa, there were roughly 4,000 four-year-old children who were eligible for free preschool in 2005-06. About 40 percent of the families took advantage of it and chose to send their children to a pre-K program at a public elementary school. Another 10 percent opted to send their children to a federally funded Head Start program for low-income children at a community center. The remaining 50 percent decided against attending either. Many children stayed home but some went to private preschools or day care centers.
Researchers then looked up college enrollment records from 2019 to 2021 for these Tulsa children in a database of the National Student Clearinghouse, an education nonprofit that collects data from nearly every U.S. college and university. Overall, 44 percent of the preschool alumni and 37 percent of Head Start alumni enrolled in a college or university, as opposed to 33 percent of students in the comparison group.
From this raw data, it’s unclear if the differences in college attendance could be attributed to preschool or the fact that families who chose to send their children to preschool placed a higher value on education. Their kids might have gone on to college anyway.
The researchers attempted to overcome this problem by making statistical adjustments to compare children with the same income and family characteristics, such as the mother’s level of education.
After these apples-to-apples adjustments, the likelihood of enrolling in college was 12 percentage points higher if a child attended a Tulsa public school preschool than if a child didn’t attend. The adjusted results for Head Start did not produce statistically clear answers.
It’s still possible that the families who chose public preschool were more ambitious and motivated than their demographically and economically similar counterparts in the comparison group. That’s why it’s hard to study education programs where participation is voluntary and know for certain that the program is producing results. But this is the best that researchers can do without randomly assigning families to preschool as in a drug trial.
It’s puzzling why preschool playtime and lessons might lead to more college going if the academic benefits of preschool generally fade out in elementary school. Researchers have theorized that the social skills children learn in preschool may help them overcome frustrations and persist in their studies later in life but that is hard to prove.
In this Tulsa study, Gormley noticed that the city’s magnet schools were part of the answer. Magnet programs are often criticized for being inequitable, disproportionately filled with white and Asian students. But Gormley found that low-income Black, Hispanic and Native American children who attended public preschool were more likely to attend a magnet school, and children who attended magnet schools were more likely to go to college.
“It is a path,” said Gormley. “There have been many efforts to include students of color in the pre-K program, and also in the magnet schools. Without those heroic efforts by people on the ground in Tulsa, you might not have seen the very positive long-term effects.”
Gormley said he plans to retire soon and shared two lessons he’s learned from his career studying early childhood education. One is that education policymakers “need to spend as much time redesigning their K through 12 school systems as they spend designing their pre-K systems if they want pre-K to have long-term benefits.” The second lesson is to wait patiently for long-term benefits to emerge even when elementary school test scores disappoint. “Ignore the zigs and zags along the way and focus on where the kids wind up,” said Gormley. “The game isn’t over until the bottom of the ninth inning.”
This story about the long-term benefits of preschool was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.