New research shows that attending a Boston public preschool led to positive long-term impacts on educational attainment as attendees were more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college. The short-term effect of preschool on test scores was minimal, but there was a substantial impact on student behavior. Effects were larger for boys but did not differ by race or income.
Economists Guthrie Gray-Lobe (UChicago), Parag Pathak (MIT), and Christopher Walters (UC Berkeley) studied the short and long-run impacts of Boston Public Schools’ universal public preschool program through The School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII), a research lab based in the MIT Department of Economics that partners with school districts and higher education institutions to “conduct policy-relevant research and examine the connections between human capital and the American income distribution.”
The study found that enrolling in preschool increased the likelihood that a student would ever graduate from high school by 6%, attendance at college on time by 8%, and taking the SAT by 9%. However, Boston public preschool had little detectable impact on elementary, middle, and high school state standardized test scores. Nor was there much effect on the likelihood of students repeating a grade.
The report suggested that boys and girls attending preschool have a higher chance of attending college, but the preschool effect is larger for boys. Somewhat surprisingly, the study found no differences in preschool impact by race and income (determined by whether a student receives a free or reduced-price lunch). But, overall, the study implied that all students—regardless of race or income—are likely to benefit from universal preschool.
It is the first study that uses a randomized research design to examine the long-term outcomes of children attending a large-scale program. As policymakers consider increased public investment in universal preschool, the research findings suggest that preschool can lead to long-term educational attainment gains through improvements in behavior. Furthermore, the observed effects across demographic groups suggest that all students are likely to benefit from universal preschool.
High-quality early childhood education is increasingly viewed as an important and cost-effective intervention to address early-life deficits. President Biden’s $1.8 trillion spending and tax plan includes a $200 billion investment universal free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. The plan includes children from wealthier families along the lines of programs in cities like Washington and New York City, but some education advocates are recommending a program that targets low-income children.