Pre-K advocates in Philly and elsewhere often argue that government investment in early childhood education pays societal dividends in the long run. New research by a prominent academic puts a number on those dividends, and it's a big one.
In a study published today, Nobel-Prize-winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago and his colleagues broke down decades of data from a group of people who attended two North Carolina early-childhood programs – birth to age 5 – in the 1970s. Researchers followed them into their mid-30s. They found that every dollar spent on this cohort of kids created $6.30 in return on investment. Or to put it another way, the child-care program produced annual returns of 13 percent — the kind of figure that tends to make Wall Street types swoon.
Part of what distinguishes this study — other than the fact that it comes from an academic heavy-hitter — is that it factors in a wide range of perceived benefits. The researchers used data detailed enough to calculate whether placement in one of the two child-care programs increased the future earnings of participants, boosted their parents' earning potential, improved participants' health, and reduced the likelihood participants would commit crimes.
The final return-on-investment figure took all of those benefits into account.
The study also found that the two North Carolina programs managed to boost participants' IQ and that the boost was sustained into adulthood. That's critical, Heckman said, because many argue that the positive associations of quality early care diminish over time. At least in the example of these two programs, that has not proved to be the case.
"So this is a program that starts early, it intervenes, it gives children enriched environments, it builds autonomy — both for the parent and for the child," said Heckman.
So can Philadelphians expect a similarly huge return on the $23 million the city just sunk into its pre-K expansion initiative?