Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

There’s more evidence of the long-term benefits of high-quality early education, this time from the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina, one of three major longitudinal studies of the impact of early education on low-income children. The low-income children who participated in the Abecedarian Project attended a high-quality, full-time, year-round early education and care program from infancy until kindergarten entry. The children engaged in activities that promoted their language, cognitive and social-emotional development.

At age 30, participants in the Abecedarian program:

The paper —  “Adult Outcomes as a Function of an Early Childhood Educational Program: An Abecedarian Project Follow-up” — was published online in January in the journal Developmental Psychology.

“When we previously revisited them as young adults at age 21, we found that the children who had received the early educational intervention were more likely to go to college; now we know they were also more likely to make it all the way through and graduate,” co-author Elizabeth Pungello, of the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, said in a UNC news release. “What’s more, this achievement applied to both boys and girls, an important finding given the current low rate of college graduation for minority males in our country.”

Longitudinal studies of Abecedarian, the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan, and Chicago’s Child-Parent Center Education Program have provided much valuable evidence of the wide range of lasting benefits of high-quality early education on children from low-income families.

“The pattern of results over the first 30 years of life provides a clearer than ever scientific understanding of how early childhood education can be an important contributor to academic achievement and social competence in adulthood,” co-author Craig Ramey, professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, said in the news release. “The next major challenge is to provide high quality early childhood education to all the children who need it and who can benefit from it.”

The latest Abecedarian study also found participants’ annual earnings were, on average, $12,000 higher than the control group. The result, however, is not statistically significant because of the sample size and what economist Tim Bartik, in his analysis of the study, calls “the natural variation in earnings.”

“However,” Bartik writes, “given that the program has statistically significant and large effects on both educational attainment and full-time employment, it seems quite plausible that the program does have large positive effects on earnings.”

The cost of Abecedarian was $16,000 per year per child – or $80,000 per child over the five-year course of the intervention. Bartik, whose research focuses on economic development, asks if the benefits justify the cost. The answer, he says, is yes.

The educational attainment results detailed in the new study exceed the projections researchers made when participants were 21, Bartik notes. When he examined the research at age 21, Bartik found that “each dollar invested in the Abecedarian program yielded economic development benefits for a state economy of $2.25.” Looking at the results at age 30, he estimates $2.53 in economic development benefits for every dollar invested in Abecedarian.

“If we assume the point earnings estimates at age 30 are true effects, and assume similar percentage effects on earnings at other ages, the estimated benefits of the Abecedarian program significantly increase,” Bartik writes. “Under these assumptions, for each dollar invested in the Abecedarian program, there would be state economic development benefits of $3.49, a large increase from the previous estimate of $2.25. Of course, these much larger effects are based on earnings effects that are not quite statistically significant, so we should not place too much weight on these results’ precision.

“The bottom-line of the age-30 study of the Abecedarian program is that it strengthens our confidence that Abecedarian-style intensive programs can have large benefits. There are real political barriers to targeted programs for disadvantaged children that cost about $80,000 per child.  But if these political barriers can be overcome, these intensive programs provide economic payoffs that more than justify their costs.”