New research sees long-term college benefits from Oklahoma’s universal pre-K

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The advent of universal preschool for all children is more recent. It’s not clear whether these newer and much larger programs will also produce long-term benefits. So far, a 2021 study of Boston’s universal pre-K program found that students who attended the city’s preschools between 1997 and 2003 were more likely to go to college immediately after high school.

In Tulsa, there were roughly 4,000 four-year-old children who were eligible for free preschool in 2005-06. About 40 percent of the families took advantage of it and chose to send their children to a pre-K program at a public elementary school. Another 10 percent opted to send their children to a federally funded Head Start program for low-income children at a community center. The remaining 50 percent decided against attending either. Many children stayed home but some went to private preschools or day care centers.

Researchers then looked up college enrollment records from 2019 to 2021 for these Tulsa children in a database of the National Student Clearinghouse, an education nonprofit that collects data from nearly every U.S. college and university. Overall, 44 percent of the preschool alumni and 37 percent of Head Start alumni enrolled in a college or university, as opposed to 33 percent of students in the comparison group. 

From this raw data, it’s unclear if the differences in college attendance could be attributed to preschool or the fact that families who chose to send their children to preschool placed a higher value on education. Their kids might have gone on to college anyway.

The researchers attempted to overcome this problem by making statistical adjustments to compare children with the same income and family characteristics, such as the mother’s level of education.  

After these apples-to-apples adjustments, the likelihood of enrolling in college was 12 percentage points higher if a child attended a Tulsa public school preschool than if a child didn’t attend. The adjusted results for Head Start did not produce statistically clear answers.

It’s still possible that the families who chose public preschool were more ambitious and motivated than their demographically and economically similar counterparts in the comparison group. That’s why it’s hard to study education programs where participation is voluntary and know for certain that the program is producing results. But this is the best that researchers can do without randomly assigning families to preschool as in a drug trial.

It’s puzzling why preschool playtime and lessons might lead to more college going if the academic benefits of preschool generally fade out in elementary school. Researchers have theorized that the social skills children learn in preschool may help them overcome frustrations and persist in their studies later in life but that is hard to prove. 

In this Tulsa study, Gormley noticed that the city’s magnet schools were part of the answer. Magnet programs are often criticized for being inequitable, disproportionately filled with white and Asian students. But Gormley found that low-income Black, Hispanic and Native American children who attended public preschool were more likely to attend a magnet school, and children who attended magnet schools were more likely to go to college. 

“It is a path,” said Gormley. “There have been many efforts to include students of color in the pre-K program, and also in the magnet schools. Without those heroic efforts by people on the ground in Tulsa, you might not have seen the very positive long-term effects.”

Gormley said he plans to retire soon and shared two lessons he’s learned from his career studying early childhood education. One is that education policymakers “need to spend as much time redesigning their K through 12 school systems as they spend designing their pre-K systems if they want pre-K to have long-term benefits.” The second lesson is to wait patiently for long-term benefits to emerge even when elementary school test scores disappoint. “Ignore the zigs and zags along the way and focus on where the kids wind up,” said Gormley. “The game isn’t over until the bottom of the ninth inning.”

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