The Value of Universal Preschool for Higher Education

by Staff Writers

Why are we always so resistant to spending money on education? The primary response to the President's State of the Union Address call for universal preschool has been for people to question how it will be paid for. We can afford universal free education for everyone, let alone for at-risk pre-schoolers. End of debate. In the case of universal pre-k education, the benefits to society in general, but particularly to higher education far outweigh any costs associated with the endeavor, even though we would need to wait almost two decades to see any returns on the investment. Here is a look at what investing in universal pre-k would do for higher education when those students finally reach college.

What Pre-K Does for Kids
The PEW Foundation report "Why All Children Benefit from Pre-K" nicely summarizes the immediate and long-term benefits of high quality preschool education for all children.

  • Supports a critical time for brain development
  • Provides an academic foundation for the rest of school careers
  • Ensures that at-risk children are not left behind
  • Makes children more efficient and productive learners
  • Decreases the burden of remediation in future grades
  • Equates to better high school graduation and future employability

It is clear from the research that the time has come for high quality, universal pre-k for all American children, not only because of the benefits to them, but also because of the effects that their early engagement in structured learning has on all of society. What the PEW report does not indicate, however, is the positive effect that universal pre-k would have on higher education.

More College Students
One of the effects of universal pre-k cited in the PEW report was an increased high school graduation rate for those participating in high quality early childhood education programs. With dramatic shifts in the rates of high school graduates looming in the next 15 to 20 years, particularly in the north east, mid-Atlantic, and mid-west, and the subsequent shortage of prospective college students from those areas, it is imperative for the survival of higher education as we know it to glean every possible student from our high schools. Universal pre-k can increase the number of high school graduates and thus the number of potential college students. Even more importantly, early education can make those graduates better college students as well.

Well-prepared Students = Less Remediation = Lower Costs
According to the PEW report, children from well-to-do families are far more prepared for learning at all levels than their less well-off peers. There are a number of reasons for this; resources available, more interaction with parents, and the ability to afford excellent preschool experiences for their children. This all translates into students who, according to the report, are more likely to read at or above grade level throughout their educational careers. What does this mean for higher education?

The results of the 2012 SAT test indicated that only 43 percent of graduating high school students are college ready. The remainder are failing to meet the college readiness benchmark of 1550 that indicates that they will be able to succeed in college and beyond ( []. While many of those who are prepared are likely to have attended some form of preschool, my own experience as a parent has shown me that the quality of programs differs widely, and all pre-K programs are not created equal. Part of the President's proposal is for "high quality" early education options, which the PEW report also indicates as essential to long-term success. Expanding our offerings with excellent programs for all would help jumpstart more students on the path to college success and minimize the need for universities to spend extensively on remediating students when they reach campus.

Deeper Intellectual Curiosity
One under-valued aspect of good early education is that it can inspire a lifelong love of learning and intellectual curiosity that is often missing in our society, and that is essential to success in higher education and beyond. This engagement in intellectual pursuits stems from being pushed by teachers in preschool and having doors opened through reading and the availability of resources, as well as the expectation that those resources will be used. Excellent pre-K programs do all three of those things.

College admissions offices are increasingly looking to "noncognitive" assessments of students' potential to succeed in higher education. These measures often include many of the same skills and attributes that are supported and cultivated through early exposure to rich learning opportunities. Some of the things they are looking for that can be enhanced through excellent pre-K schools are: intellectual curiosity, artistic and cultural appreciation, multicultural appreciation, leadership, interpersonal skills, social responsibility, physical and psychological health, adaptability, and perseverance (The College Board, 2011).

Getting Behind Universal Pre-K for the Long Haul
We live in an instant gratification, me-first world where ideas and initiatives are not supported by the masses or our representatives in government if they do not provide an obvious, right now benefit for each individual. Programs like universal pre-K fill neither of these criteria as they only benefit others right now, and only in the long term do they benefit all of us, and even then only indirectly. But high-quality pre-K would benefit not only all of society by raising our levels of literacy, productivity, and intellectual creativity, but it would benefit higher education, which further feeds our social, cultural, intellectual, and economic growth. All of these things benefit all of us more than can be quantified in the here and now of political debate. Patience is the order of the day when investing in education at any level, and an investment in pre-K will pay great returns on that outlay – if we can only be patient and thoughtful enough to consider how the good of society benefits us all individually.

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /