An Economist’s take on pre-K

By Paul Breidenbach,

C4AD spoke to Aaron Sojourner, labor economist with the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, about current research on the economic impact of investment in early childhood education.

Sojourner’s research focuses on the development of human potential through early childhood and K-12 education, labor-market institutions, and behavorial consumer finance. He authored a study that shows significant and lasting benefits from high-quality intervention from infancy to age 3. He is a member of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ Cradle-to-K Cabinet.  

Aaron Sojourner, labor economist with the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
Aaron Sojourner, labor economist with the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

According to Sojourner, multiple long-term studies show that public investment in enriched early childhood education, especially for poor children in the years before kindergarten, has generated return on investment estimated at 10 to 12 percent.  By comparison, the stock market in the period since World War II has yielded an average return of about 6 percent.  

“There have been a series of very credible studies where you take a set of kids and you randomly assign some of them to have access to high quality early environments.   You take the other kids…and they don’t get access to those enriched environments.  There’s nothing systematically different about these two groups of kids: same kind of families, same kind of communities, same kind of environments… But one set has access to these high quality care programs over these very early years and one set of them doesn’t, and you can see impacts on the kids’ development.” 

“Even when the interventions end…you can see differences.  The really compelling evidence comes when you follow these kids for 30 or 40 years and you check on them in adulthood… You can see that these kids who had access to these high quality care environments…are earning more money, they’re less likely to be using public assistance, they’re less likely to have run-ins with the criminal justice system.”

The best return on investment in young children comes from the inclusion of poor children in high-quality enriched environments.  According to Sojourner, studies show very little effect on long-term outcomes for children from middle-class households who experience intensive intervention outside the home in the preschool years.  Instead, intervention narrows the infamous “achievement gap” between poor and non-poor in American schools — a gap that has inspired, or at least justified, decades of school reforms.  

In Sojourner’s own study, that gap was gone at age 3 for poor children who participated in only two years of intensive center-based care.  At age 5, two years after the intervention ended, children who had participated still enjoyed significant advantages over non-participating poor children; three years after that, 8-year-olds who’d been in high-quality care had about a 60 percent advantage in IQ over their peers.  Other studies that have tracked children well into adulthood show a persistent advantage in earning power and other measures of well-being.  

How do scholars account for such strong and long-lasting effects of intensive early childhood intervention?  So far they do not, says Sojourner.  The specific mechanisms that produce better outcomes decades after intervention ends are still unclear.  And what such intervention in Cincinnati will look like is also unknown.  Policy-makers will have to decide what constitutes high-quality intervention, and now voters in Cincinnati will have to approve $15 million in expenditures, now that the Pre-School Promise levy will be on the fall ballot. 

What is known, according to Sojourner, is that to get the biggest bang for our buck, we should invest in children well before they reach kindergarten.  High-quality educational investments in young children bring rewards that far outweigh their upfront costs.