Access to Preschool
Display Date

We focus here on early childhood education that begins before kindergarten for children ages 2 to 5 and highlights how preschool and pre-kindergarten, or pre-K, strengthen academic success and school readiness, particularly in the short term and for children who have experienced poverty. Improving access to preschool in a community can enhance academic success for lower-income children. Preschool enables children to develop critical cognitive skills that set them up for success through higher test scores both in kindergarten and throughout school (Magnuson and Duncan 2016).

Evidence of the Relationship between Predictor and Related Outcomes

  • Attending pre-K can promote critical brain development among young children (Phillips et al. 2017). Research shows that cognitive development and the supportive environment of pre-K is especially effective for development in children who have experienced poverty (Phillips et al. 2017). Pre-kindergarten enables children to learn, for example, vocabulary, mathematics, and interpersonal skills that contribute to later school success, measured by cognitive skills, achievement, and grade-level performance (Phillips et al. 2017).
  • Preschool attendance promotes immediate school readiness for kindergarten and is linked to higher test scores throughout primary education (Ansari 2018; Magnuson and Duncan 2016; Phillips et al. 2017). Barnett and colleagues (2018) use an age-cutoff regression discontinuity design to compare two groups of children: One group had completed pre-K the previous year and were just beginning state kindergarten; the other had missed the birthdate cutoff for pre-K the previous year and were just beginning pre-K. They find that among state-funded pre-K programs, having been in pre-K is associated with a one-year-later increase in language scores of about 0.24 standard deviations (measured using the PPVT-III, or the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test 3rd edition), an increase in math scores of about 0.44 standard deviations (Woodcock-Johnson Applied Problems 3rd edition), and an in increase in emergent literacy skills of 1 standard deviation (Preschool Comprehensive test of Phonological and Print Processing’s Print Awareness subtest).
  • The benefits of preschool programs to boost young children’s early learning holds true for children from all income backgrounds (Ansari 2018). But pre-K has been shown to be especially important for students experiencing poverty; studies show that middle-class children experience about 70 to 90 percent of the short-term academic benefits of preschool access that low-income children experience (Ansari 2018).
  • Magnuson and Duncan (2016) further report that preschool attendance has broader societal benefits: it can reduce systems costs associated with repeating grades, child protection services, and crime. These benefits could outweigh the costs of expanding preschool access; at worst they would simply break even (Magnuson and Duncan 2016; Ramon et al. 2018).
  • Having young children in preschool also curbs parents’ costs for child care and makes it easier for parents, especially mothers, to rejoin the workforce or stabilize their existing job (Glynn, Farrell, and Wu 2013).
  • Magnuson and Duncan (2016) find that across studies, the statistically significant positive effects of preschool access on both academic skills and achievement as well as on human capital development are ubiquitous. Evidence suggests that attending pre-K also contributes to longer-term outcomes such as higher educational attainment and earnings. They conclude that access to pre-K can likely support mobility from poverty and that the benefits of expanding early childhood education likely outweigh the costs.
  • Longitudinal studies show that preschool attendance can predict later high school graduation, college attendance, and even income (Magnuson and Duncan 2016). In one case, children who attended Head Start graduated high school at a rate 22 percentage points higher than those who did not (Magnuson and Duncan 2016). Preschool attendance also reduces adult criminal activity, lowers rates of substance and drug abuse, and improves health (Magnuson and Duncan 2016; Ramon et al. 2018).
  • Evidence on preschools consistently shows diminishing returns over time, but these benefits may not completely disappear, and other positive outcomes remain in later life (Magnuson and Duncan 2016). Ansari (2018) finds the benefits of preschool participation reduced in size by approximately half once children were nine years out from the end of preschool. However, the effects did not disappear, and the academic benefits remain in the long run, regardless of child characteristics and program type, including number of hours spent in a preschool program. Yoshikawa and colleagues (2013) find that even after the effect of preschool on test scores fully dissipates, children who attended preschool go on to show positive effects on other later-life outcomes, such as high school graduation, teen pregnancy, years of education completed, earnings, and crime.
  • Meta-analyses drawing together the evidence across decades of evaluation research indicate with confidence that preschool programs can have a substantial impact on early learning and development. Positive effects on children’s development include improved language, literacy, early math skills, social and emotional outcomes, and health. The most recent research also shows that positive effects extend to dual-language-learner children and to children with special needs (Yoshikawa et al. 2013). However, despite compelling evidence on the long-term positive effects of preschool attendance, not all studies demonstrate these trends, and more evaluations are needed to reach consensus about preschool’s long-term impacts (Phillips et al. 2017). 

How Investments Can Influence the Predictor at State or Local Levels

Initiatives can expand access to preschool in locations where early childhood education is lacking and can target children from low-income backgrounds or whose families speak languages other than English at home (Magnuson and Duncan 2016; Phillips et al. 2017; Yoshikawa et al. 2013). Several studies suggest that helping teachers implement specific evidence-based curricula and instruction through coaching and mentoring can increase access to quality preschool education (Yoshikawa et al. 2013).


The primary reference is marked with an asterisk.

Ansari, Arya. 2018. “The Persistence of Preschool Effects from Early Childhood Through Adolescence.” Journal of Educational Psychology 110 (7): 952–73.

Barnett, W. Steven, Kwanghee Jung, Allison Friedman-Krauss, Ellen C. Frede, Milagros Nores, Jason T. Hustedt, Carollee Howes, and Marijata Daniel-Echols. 2018. “State Prekindergarten Effects on Early Learning at Kindergarten Entry: An Analysis of Eight State Programs.” American Educational Research Association 4 (2): 1–16.

Glynn, Sarah Jane, Jane Farrell, and Nancy Wu. 2013. “The Importance of Preschool and Child Care for Working Mothers.” Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. 

*Magnuson, Katherine, and Greg J. Duncan. 2016. “Can Early Childhood Interventions Decrease Inequality of Economic Opportunity?” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 2 (2): 123–41.

Phillips, Deborah A., Mark W. Lipsey, Kenneth A. Dodge, Ron Haskins, Daphna Bassok, Margaret R. Burchinal, Greg J. Duncan, Mark Dynarski, Katherine A. Magnuson, and Christina Weiland. 2017. Puzzling It Out: The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects: A Consensus Statement. Washington DC: Brookings Institution.

Ramon, Ismaila, Sajal K. Chattopadhyay, W. Steven Barnett, and Robert A Hahn. “Early Childhood Education to Promote Health Equity: A Community Guide Economic Review.” Journal of Public Health Management and Practice24 (1): e8–15.

Yoshikawa, Hirokazu, Christina Weiland, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Margaret R. Burchinal, Linda M. Espinosa, William T. Gormley, Jens Ludwig, Katherine A. Magnuson, Deborah Phillips, Martha J. Zaslow. 2013. Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education. New York: Foundation for Child Development.

High-Quality Education

Related outcome: Age-appropriate cognitive development and educational attainment

Mobility dimension engaged: Economic success

Mother and Child Illustration