Preschool pays off in college and beyond

UNC-CHAPEL HILL (US) — Adults who participated in a high quality early education program in the 1970s are still reaping benefits from the experience, a new study shows.

The findings, published online in the journal Developmental Psychology, offer new data on people who participated in the Abecedarian Project, a carefully controlled scientific study of the potential benefits of early childhood education for children from low-income families who were at risk of developmental delays or academic failure.

Participants have been followed from early childhood through adolescence and young adulthood, generating a comprehensive and rare set of longitudinal data.

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The participants at 30 have significantly more years of education than peers who were part of a control group. They were also four times more likely to have earned college degrees—23 percent of participants graduated from a four-year college or university compared to only 6 percent of the control group.

“When we previously revisited them as young adults at age 21, we found that the children who had received the early educational intervention were more likely to go to college; now we know they were also more likely to make it all the way through and graduate,” says Elizabeth Pungello, a scientist at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author of the study.

“What’s more, this achievement applied to both boys and girls, an important finding given the current low rate of college graduation for minority males in our country.”

Participants were also more likely to have been consistently employed (75 percent had worked full time for at least 16 of the previous 24 months, compared to 53 percent of the control group) and were less likely to have used public assistance (only 4 percent received benefits for at least 10 percent of the previous seven years, compared to 20 percent of the control group).

They also showed a tendency to delay parenthood by almost two years compared to the control group. Project participants also appeared to have done better in relation to several other social and economic measures (including higher incomes), but those results were not statistically significant.

Of the 111 infants originally enrolled in the project (98 percent of whom were African-American), 101 took part in the age 30 follow-up.

“Being able to follow this study sample over so many years has been a privilege,” says Frances Campbell, senior scientist at the institute and lead author of the study. “The randomized design of the study gives us confidence in saying that the benefits we saw at age 30 were associated with an early childhood educational experience.”

The findings have powerful implications for public policy, says co-author Craig Ramey, professor and distinguished research scholar at the Carilion Research Institute at Virginia Tech.

“I believe that the pattern of results over the first 30 years of life provides a clearer than ever scientific understanding of how early childhood education can be an important contributor to academic achievement and social competence in adulthood,” he says.

“The next major challenge is to provide high quality early childhood education to all the children who need it and who can benefit from it.”

The Abecedarian Project was a full-time child care facility that operated year-round for children from infancy until they entered kindergarten. Throughout their early years, the children were provided with educational activities designed to support their language, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Follow-up studies have consistently shown that children who received early educational intervention did better academically, culminating in their having greater chance of adult educational attainment.

Researchers from Tulane University and the University of Melbourne contributed to the study.

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