Preschool Pays Off | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Preschool Pays Off

In a landmark study, TC researchers show that preschool education saves society $250,000 per child.

The story ran in the New York Times Magazine in late November: a study that had followed a group of poor inner-city children from Ypsilanti, Michigan, since 1962 now showed that, at age 40, those who received a high-quality preschool education were, by almost any measure, leading better lives. They earned more money; were twice as likely to hold college degrees; significantly more likely to have jobs, own their own homes, own a car and have a savings account; significantly less likely to have been on welfare; half as likely to have been sentenced to prison or jail; more likely to have been married; and twice as likely to have raised their own children.

"This latest dispatch from the field, confirming the remarkable and enduring impact of a long-ago experience, should alter the way we understand preschool and, maybe, the way society invests in the future," wrote David Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, in the Times piece.

Indeed, the findings of the Perry Preschool Project, as it is known, appear to off-set a 1969 evaluation of the federal Head Start program that found that better test scores achieved by Head Start children disappeared by second grade. But the latest Perry findings (there were previous updates of the study's cohort at ages 3 through 11, and again at 14, 15, 19 and 27) do more than confirm that a quality preschool education makes a major difference in children's lives. Analysis done by researchers here at Teachers College also attached a dollar value to those gains, finding that the $15,000 cost of preschool for each child has returned, on average, a whopping $250,000. That's a return of more than $17 on each dollar spent.

The TC research found even bigger savings related to male students. Primarily because of differences in crime rates for men and women, savings per male in the study were in the neighborhood of $400,000.

"We looked at four variables-welfare, crime, earnings and educational attainment," says Milagros Nores, a third-year doctoral student in International and Transcultural Studies, who did much of the analysis under the supervision of Clive Belfield, Associate Director of TC's National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. "We had access to a great deal of detailed information that wasn't available at the point of the last update, when the cohort was age 27.

"Retrospectively, we could look at their monthly and yearly earnings. We could see how often they changed jobs, when they were on welfare or unemployment. The FBI was able to provide us with much more sophisticated information on crime costs that differentiates costs of types of crime to a much finer level of detail."

In the end, says Nores, who spent over a year sifting through the data, the TC researchers generated lower, middle and upper estimates for crime costs and earnings- "all three of which were conservative."

Can new projections be made about what investment in quality preschool education today might ultimately save society?

"You can't predict an actual figure, but you can certainly say that the trend will be similar," says Nores.

Published Thursday, Jan. 13, 2005