Nobel Prize winner James Heckman’s research has played an important role in establishing that high-quality public preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds can more than pay for itself over the long term, as low-income children who attend are more likely to live productive lives. It’s an economic argument that has persuaded lawmakers from both parties to support early education initiatives.
Now Heckman has released new research showing that the return on investment is even higher for high-quality programs that care for low-income children from infancy to age 5. Children in such zero-to-five programs are more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to be incarcerated than their counterparts who stayed home or enrolled in low-quality programs, had higher IQs and were healthier during the course of their lives, according to the study released Monday.
All of that taken together leads to a significant savings to society, the study found. The rate of return on the public investment in zero-to-five programs is 13 percent per year, Heckman and his colleagues estimate, up from an estimate of 7 percent to 10 percent per year for preschool programs that start at age 3.
The more comprehensive zero-to-five programs cost about $18,500 per year for each child enrolled — more than the average public school district spends per pupil in grades K through 12. But for every dollar invested, the program generated a societal benefit of $6.30, according to Heckman.
He said the findings suggest that policymakers could make a bigger difference in the lives of poor children with early-childhood education programs that begin far earlier in their lives, when children are just eight weeks old.
“As an economist, I always find it very odd that people only focus on the costs of a program rather than the benefits,” Heckman said. “This is very strong evidence for supporting this kind of program going forward.”