Early Childhood

Study: Early Education for Poor Students Carries Long-Term Benefits

By Julie Rasicot — January 23, 2012 2 min read
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Right on the heels of last week’s news that some states are cutting back on prekindergarten programs because of budget woes comes a new study that proves exposure to quality early childhood education can transform lives.

The study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, shows that adults who received high-quality child care starting as babies were still reaping benefits even 30 years later.

Those benefits include achieving a higher level of education, having a greater likelihood of being consistently employed and less likelihood of using public assistance. Study participants also showed a tendency to delay parenthood.

The new data comes from the long-running Abecedarian Project led by the university’s FPG Child Development Institute, which began following 111 infants (who were mostly African-American) in 1972. The kids were from low-income families and were considered to be at risk of developmental delays or academic failure.

Back then, the children were divided randomly into two groups. One group was enrolled in full-time, high-quality child care until the kids entered kindergarten. Those children participated in educational activities focusing on emotional, social and cognitive development and with an emphasis on language, according to the study website. The other group of kids, known as the control group, received care that their families arranged.

The study participants’ progress has been monitored over the years. Follow-up studies have been conducted at ages 12, 15 and 21. Those earlier studies had shown that participants achieved higher test scores through age 21, completed more years of education and were more likely to attend a four-year college than the control group.

The new data shows that the benefits of that early intervention have continued into adulthood. The follow-up study conducted at age 30 found that participants were four times more likely to have earned college degrees than the control students. Nearly a quarter had graduated from a four-year college or university. That’s compared to only 6 percent of the control group, according to the study website.

And participants were more likely to delay parenthood by two years compared to peers who were part of the control group.

The findings provide scientific evidence that early childhood education can contribute to “academic achievement and social competence in adulthood,” study co-author Craig Ramey, a professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, said in a press release. “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.”

Even in this era of shrinking budgets, is this a challenge we can afford to ignore?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.