Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Is universal pre-K worth the cost?

Yes, according to the national nonprofit Child Trends.

While research has found benefits in pre-K programs that focus on at-risk children, Child Trends has found new evidence about the benefits of universal pre-K programs that serve all children.

These findings are featured in a working paper released by Timothy Bartik at the Upjohn Institute, Jonathan A. Belford of Child Trends, Will T. Gormley of Georgetown University’s Center for Research on Children in the United States, and Sara Anderson from West Virginia University.

The focus of their analysis is Oklahoma. That’s where the Tulsa Public Schools’ universal pre-K program produces benefits — such as increased earnings and reduced crime — that “outweigh program costs by almost 2-to-1. That is, for every $1 spent on TPS universal pre-K, there is a societal gain of $1.89,” a Child Trends blog post explains

These are estimates. As the blog explains:

“In the Tulsa study, TPS pre-K participants were still in high school, so the analysis is based on the estimated effects of participating in TPS pre-K on grade retention by ninth grade, which were then used to predict future earnings and crime. We focus on these benefits in particular because prior research has shown that earnings increases and crime reduction can account for almost 90 percent of social preschool benefits.”

Nonetheless: “These findings are significant because they represent one of the most accurate estimates to date of the benefits and costs of universal pre-K.”

Tulsa isn’t alone. New York and other cities are also running universal pre-K programs, as the Huffington Post reported earlier this month, noting:

“Cities ‘are an important force in making pre-K available to every 4-year-old,’ said Josh Wallack, New York City’s deputy chancellor for division of strategy and policy. ‘They’re in touch with the families that are advocating and want this for their kids, and they have the tools in place to scale up quickly. We see this is a conversation between cities, working together to advocate for those resources to get the job done.’ ”

The Child Trends blog concludes:

“The results from the TPS study support the idea that high-quality, universal pre-K programs will likely provide net benefits to society. The documented benefits of pre-K are not as great as the ones estimated for intensive preschool programs, but universal pre-K may still be a good investment.”

And ultimately, of course, “while benefit-cost analyses of preschool programs should certainly be factored into relevant policy decisions, they should not be the only aspect examined. The specific needs of children and families in each state or district should also be a major consideration.”