Large-Scale and Effective Early Childhood Programs Increase College Graduation Rates

Much of my interest in studying the effects of early childhood learning and family programs comes from the desire to see how they link to school readiness, achievement and broader well-being over time. Designing, implementing and refining these programs requires a lot of collaboration with school districts and communities, which provides an opportunity to take the findings the programs produce, expand the quality programs and implement them in other school districts. But historically, most studies have focused only on the short-term effects and not longer, life-course effects into adulthood. I wanted to look further and see if a high-quality early childhood program called the Child-Parent Centers (CPC) has continuing effects for school achievement through secondary education, into college and college graduation. CPC is a preschool- to third-grade program that strengthens the structure and quality of learning experiences, from small classes to parent involvement and professional learning.

The Short-Term Effects of Early Childhood Programs

There are a few things we know for certain based on studies of the short-term effects of high-quality early childhood programs. In general, there is a strong effect on school readiness skills – such as language development, numeracy and math skills, and cognitive skills. We can see the immediate impact in kindergarten. Then, over time, we can see improvement in benchmark scores for reading and math performance – from the results of standardized tests taken in third, sixth and eighth grade. Another effect studies have shown is a lower need for remedial education. Kids who do better in math and reading achievement will be less likely to need special education services or to repeat a grade. Program graduates also have greater motivation to succeed, school commitment and socio-emotional learning.

From a social standpoint, there is a reduction in anti-social behavior and involvement in the criminal justice system. This translates to higher high school graduation rates and better transition to adulthood. And while there are an increasing number of studies that indicate the positive impact of high-quality early childhood programs, there are very few that examine the long-term effects into adulthood. For example, educational attainment, economic well-being, and health and well-being are rarely addressed, especially for large-scale public programs like the Child-Parent Centers. The contributions of duration of program participation also have been very limited.

The Chicago Longitudinal Study

This lack of long-term studies is what led to my current work as director of the Chicago Longitudinal Study, one of the largest and most extensive studies of the effects of early childhood intervention. We built upon earlier research which had a sample size of 1,500 children, and our goal was to follow participants to midlife (up to age 35), when formal education has usually ended. We focused on educational attainment, which is the leading indicator of the social determinants of health. This is where the collaboration with school districts and government agencies is so important. We were able to access data from the National Student Clearinghouse, which is an organization that nearly all colleges submit information to about enrollment and graduation rates for their students. We also interviewed participants about their educational experiences. With these and other data from the Chicago Public School District, we determined how many students went on to college, the colleges attended and the degree obtained (associate, bachelor’s or beyond). Ultimately, we were able to track 90 percent of the original 1,500 students, with roughly 1,000 in the CPC program and the remaining 500 in a comparison group who did not attend the program.

Our findings were quite revealing. After looking at high school graduation rates up through college graduation and advanced degree attainment, we found a pattern that indicates increasing years in the CPC program from ages three to nine are linked to higher attainment across all categories of educational attainment. The most important findings were in degree completion. In order to be qualified for many jobs today, you need at least an associate degree. Through this study, we saw a 40-50 percent increase in college graduation rates where students either attained an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or advanced degree. Coming from high-poverty neighborhoods, these participants achieved levels of attainment that were well beyond what would be expected, and we attribute that to the CPC program experience.

Six key elements of effectiveness and sustained effects we have identified are: (a) small classes and child to staff ratios from preschool to third grade, (b) intensive focus on readiness skills in all domains of learning within a developmental philosophy, (c) provision of family services, (d) frequent monitoring and feedback, (e) preschool teachers who have BAs and/or are compensated at comparable levels of K-12 teachers, and (f) a well-developed organizational support system.

Participating in the CPC program from preschool to 3rd grade had the largest effects. We found that the more years a student was in the program, the stronger their educational attainment and success. While preschool by itself had a sizable impact, continuing services in the early grades substantially added to this effect. This indicates that a supportive elementary school environment helps to sustain and increase impacts on educational attainment. We also find that school quality helps sustain impact on well-being in general.

The Importance of Access and Consistency

There is a need to increase access to publicly funded high-quality preschool programs. In the resource-rich state of Minnesota, the percentage of 4-year-olds in state preschool or public programs is less than 20%, which is low compared to most states. In Wisconsin, for example, nearly 80% enroll in public programs like state preschool. It’s important to make access easier, especially for lower-income families who usually can’t afford the highest quality programs. Full-day programs are also becoming much more important. The State of Minnesota has strong vision for education and expects that all children will be school-ready at kindergarten entry. Comprehensive evidenced-based programs like CPC can help achieve this goal. This has been making a difference in our partnership with the Saint Paul Public Schools to implement CPC and its elements.

In addition to access, early childhood programs need to be aligned with K-3 education. Continuing supports have to be prioritized, ranging from small classes, to engaging instruction and many opportunities for family engagement. Aligned curriculum across grades, collaborative teaching and professional learning in STEM, and promoting socio-emotional learning are also key. All of this depends on strong leadership at multiple levels. Parents, teachers, school administrators and policy makers must make sure they are developing systems of continuity between in-school curriculum and out-of-school programs. We can build these systems in a better way, with capacity for collaboration that is stronger than it currently is. The answer isn’t just more preschool – it’s access to high-quality early childhood programs that carry the child through at least third grade. The evidence from our studies and work with districts shows that this approach is making a difference and that it can be effectively scaled.

Additional information:

Funding for the study is from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. To read the free open-access research paper titled, “A Multicomponent, Preschool to Third Grade Preventive Intervention and Educational Attainment at 35 Years of Age,” visit the JAMA Pediatrics website.

The Human Capital Research Collaborative, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Minnesota offers a multitude of resources for CPC P-3 implementation, including monitoring tools, manuals, and extensive resources on the website,

About the Author

Arthur J. Reynolds

  • Professor
  • Institute of Child Development
  • College of Education and Human Development

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