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.