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Preschool Funding for Kids Now Pays Off Billions Later

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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preschooler playing

Sending kids to preschool has been shown to be a strong investment that can pay off big time down the road.

There are few sure investments in this chaotic economic climate, but on a national level, education has proven to pay off big down the road. As tight economic times have put the squeeze on education budgets here in the U.S., a new report shows the big benefits of even small investments in early education worldwide.

For every dollar invested in boosting preschool enrollment, middle- and low-income countries would see a return of some $6.40 to $17.60, according to a new analysis published September 22 in The Lancet. “Early childhood is the most effective and cost-effective time to ensure that all children develop to their full potential,” noted the authors, led by Patrice Engle, of California Polytechnic State University. “The returns on investment in early child development are substantial.”

Previous research found similar cost-benefit figures for the U.S. as well. In one Chicago study published earlier this year, each $1 invested in early childhood education returned an estimated $11 during the course of the child’s life thanks to better earnings, less public aid and less drain on the justice system.

If just a quarter of the kids from 73 middle- and low-income countries attended one year of preschool, it would generate some $10.6 billion additional money down the road thanks to increased potential and earning capabilities of those children once they become adults.

The effect of this extra schooling might be felt for generations. Preschool has been shown to boost school attendance and achievement later in life. And that suggests, “in turn, children who remain—and succeed—in school are more likely to earn higher incomes as adults and to provide better nutrition, health care, stimulation and educational opportunities to their own children,” Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, wrote in an essay in the same issue of The Lancet.

This sort of down-the-line effect could also help to reduce economic disparities between wealthy and poor countries—and individuals. Even within the same country, kids from the lowest fifth of the income bracket are already less than half as likely to go to preschool. “Unless governments allocate more resources to quality early child development programs for the poorest people in the population, economic disparities will continue to widen,” Engle and her colleagues wrote.

Preschool is just one aspect of early childhood development, with proper nutrition and a safe and stimulating environment being other crucial components for success and healthy progress. But with such a big payoff and the relative ease of scaling up school programs—as opposed to ensuring proper nutrition and care at home—countries of all income ranges could boost educational enrollment for kids under the age of 5 now as a way of improving the odds of economic brawn in the future.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. In-Tokyo 4:06 am 09/23/2011

    Engle and her colleagues are sadly naive.

    While they surely are correct about the value of early childhood development, it is doubtful that simply raising the ability of the lowest fifth of the income bracket will close economic disparities.

    In fact it is extremely doubtful. Just increasing the lowest fifths ability to compete for better jobs will not really change the overall ability of available jobs that much.

    In fact, even if preschool is funded for the lowest fifth, economic disparity will continue as that is the effect of the current tax code and economic system.

    Honestly, can we expect a change in the demand for labor just because the supply is better.

    We can’t, and we can’t extrapolate that because the extra education helps some in such a meaningful way that it will help everyone in the same way.

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  2. 2. zsingerb 11:44 am 09/23/2011

    Let the kids play! Kids are in school now for 13 years plus college for a total of at least 17 years! No wonder they get burned out and drop out. Let the kids have a childhood and quit worrying about the best way for them to make the most money in their lives…

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  3. 3. ASHIK 12:58 pm 09/23/2011

    Funding on kids ensures some kind of stability on ones child.My parents did make sure a similar scheme of investment on my name when i was a child and iam going to follow them when i become a parent.

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  4. 4. uconnron 5:25 pm 09/23/2011

    Efforts at changing how lower income parents value education can pay big dividends as children often reflect the values of their parents. Consequently, any preschool program should make every effort to include parent participaton in the early education of children.

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  5. 5. mannepowell 7:55 am 09/24/2011

    Those of you concerned about preschool children not having a childhood… Read the Lancet article before rushing to judgment. The children who most benefit are those in this age group who experience adverse circumstances (primarily poverty and exposure to community & family violence) that preschool both gives them a break from and prepares them to enter school. We did not have the benefit of having stories read to us at bedtime, and unfortunately went to bed hungry far too often. I’m thrilled to see the medical literature report these findings.

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  6. 6. electric38 3:05 am 09/29/2011

    Improving “enrollment” might be as simple as making sure there are cell towers and tablet computers in the most impoverished countries of the world. Every day we are hearing more about how effective teaching via the internet has become. The very best of the best teachers can reach a wider audience in every language. The United Nations needs to make a technological move towards “teaching a man to fish -rather than feeding him one”, in the area of education.
    It will most certainly not be better than any “one on one” teaching, but, it is a significant step upward for those nations (and people) who are not able to afford it.
    Broadcasting free (or low cost) courses up to and including college level might become a consideration, as teachers become better educated in utilizing the most productive methods of this relatively new technology. They might also include the use of multilingual translations.
    The trade off of less redundancy in teaching for widespread use of tablet computers may be a “wash” or at best, a cost savings.

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  7. 7. uniquestar.7 5:34 am 10/1/2011

    @electric38. Correct sentiment, “Teach a man to fish…” and all, but the means suggested wouldn’t work in the countries in question. These countries are those where only the privileged have electricity. Only the (few) urban areas even have access to running water. You’ll find a majority of the people in these countries live on less than a dollar a day, and even those who go to preschool often start their day without breakfast. Now, does it seem like these people can afford tablet computers and “low-cost” courses? And if they scraped and saved and were finally able to afford one, where would they charge them with no electrical supply? Internet, huh? Yeah, that’s a joke in most developing countries too.

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