Education is an issue with far-reaching consequences. Everyone has to go to school, and a good education can give citizens the tools and resources they need to be productive members of society. However, far too often, the debate around education seems focused solely on higher education.
Although higher education is certainly important, we also need to have more discussion around early education policy. In many ways, early education can have broader benefits than higher education.
Maybe it’s just because I spend much of my day in college, but it feels like most of the education debate centers on college tuition costs. There is, however, some evidence that higher education receives more attention than early education. Google Search Trends show there is a higher Google search interest in “free college” than “free preschool." And, anecdotally, presidential candidates' policies on higher education seem to spark a much fiercer debate than their early education platforms. That's not to say they ignore early education — simply that those proposals don't earn them quite as much attention.
Issues like student loan debt and rising tuition costs are important, but they shouldn’t overshadow early education issues. In fact, higher funding for early education would be more progressive than higher funding for higher education.
For starters, early education affects a more diverse group of people than higher education. People in college tend to be wealthier than the general population. The University of Georgia is a prime example of this. A New York Times analysis of anonymous tax data collected by Opportunity Insights found that the median family income of a UGA student is $129,800, and 59% of students come from the top 20%.
Though not everyone goes to college, everyone has to grow up, meaning that people of all backgrounds could benefit from stronger early education policies.
There’s also evidence that early education funding can have large, broad societal benefits. For example, a study of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program, a Michigan early intervention program that targets disadvantaged African American youth, found that the program returned $7 to $12 to society for every $1 of investment.
This sounds very high, but it makes sense after considering the full benefits of early education. According to the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice, children who go to early childhood programs benefit from better education, and their parents are freed up to focus on their careers and earning money. It also leads to healthier development and reduces the need for more expensive interventions later on like grade repetition or incarceration.
Higher education has dominated the education debate. I'm happy that we're having those discussions. However, if we want to create policies that help everyone and reduce inequality, we need to talk about early childhood education too.