During President Biden’s State of the Union address this Tuesday, he called for increased access to preschool for American 3- and 4-year-olds. In doing so, he made a startling claim about the effectiveness of preschool programs, stating that “children who attend preschool are about 50 percent more likely to finish high school and earn a two- or four-year degree, no matter their background. They have arrived.”
However, such dramatic evidence for preschool—particularly the public “universal pre-K” programs Biden has consistently advocated for—is spotty. This is especially true when trying to give public preschool credit for positive outcomes — such as college attendance — that occur a decade later.
Although details vary, many American states and cities allow a certain percentage of parents to enroll their children in one or two years of publicly funded prekindergarten education. These programs have blossomed over the past two decades, with all but four states having some public preschool program. Universal preschool has recently become a favorite policy proposal for Democratic candidates.
“We want to have the best-educated workforce. And that’s why universal pre-K means so much,” Biden said last January, “you know, it also dramatically increases the likelihood that that child will be able to, regardless of his background—or his background.” Regardless—attend 12 years of school and then go—about half go to a two- or four-year college.”
But the evidence for publicly funded preschool programs is spotty.
“I haven’t seen any study that comes close to supporting the claim that kids who attend preschool are about 50 percent more likely to finish high school and earn a 2- or 4-year degree,” said Colin Hroncich, policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Dr because. Although some studies have found increases in high school completion and college attendance rates, Hroncich notes that “these studies typically make a lot of assumptions in the way of matching an input at age 4 with an outcome 20 years later.”
“There may be factors that lead parents to enroll their children in pre-K that play a role in college enrollment down the road,” Hroncich added. “There’s also research that doesn’t show long-term effects from preschool. So, even though it seems like a lot of people see universal preschool as almost a panacea that will cure the problems in our education system, the evidence just isn’t there.”
Whether preschool improves educational outcomes later in life is especially important considering the $200 billion price tag attached to Biden’s proposal. Parents with alternative choices for their children would be taxed to pay for the expansion of public preschool, such as people without children.
“Parents have repeatedly shown that they have a wide variety of preferences when it comes to pre-K, with many choosing home-based or religious programs and part-time options. Decisions about education are left up to states, local communities, and especially—parents,” Hroncich notes. “As the federal government has gotten more involved in education, we’ve spent a lot more money, but we haven’t seen improvement. There’s no reason to expect different results in pre-K.”