Low Preschool Enrollment Rates Threaten to Worsen Student Achievement

Posted October 24, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A younng child plays at a table with a train of magnetic wooden numbers

As chil­dren across the coun­try set­tle into the new school year, a con­cern­ing nation­al trend is tak­ing shape: Over 50% of Amer­i­ca’s preschool-age kids are not in school, and this sta­tis­tic is grow­ing, accord­ing to researchers.

Ear­ly edu­ca­tion pro­grams are invalu­able in prepar­ing chil­dren for ele­men­tary school. Such pro­grams are asso­ci­at­ed with improved aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment and emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal health. Preschool also plays a key role in reduc­ing aca­d­e­m­ic and health dis­par­i­ties by socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus and race. Yet, high-qual­i­ty ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion is inac­ces­si­ble to many Amer­i­cans — espe­cial­ly low-income kids and chil­dren of color.

The Lat­est Find­ings on Preschool Enrollment

More than half (54%) of the nation’s 3- to 4‑year-olds were not in preschool, accord­ing to data from 20172021 pre­sent­ed in the 2023 KIDS COUNT® Data Book. The share of young kids who didn’t attend any preschool pro­gram — rep­re­sent­ing 4.4 mil­lion kids — has increased by one per­cent­age point since 20122016. In addi­tion, preschool enroll­ment for kids ages 3 to 6 dropped off sub­stan­tial­ly from 2019 to 2021, and this dip was sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant in 42 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia.

The KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter also tracks enroll­ment in the pub­lic Head Start pro­gram, which showed a sim­i­lar­ly steep decline between 2019 and 2021. The total enroll­ment of U.S. chil­dren ages 3 to 5 in Head Start fell by near­ly 30% dur­ing this two-year period.

Lim­it­ed Access to Preschool Is Not a Recent Problem

Lim­it­ed access to preschool is a per­sis­tent issue, with data pri­or to 2020 indi­cat­ing that more than 50% of the nation’s chil­dren were not enrolled in preschool. When par­ents do seek to uti­lize child care or preschool, they often strug­gle to find high-qual­i­ty, afford­able and avail­able options.

Con­tribut­ing to this chal­lenge is the fact that very few states offer free, pub­lic preschool pro­grams start­ing at age 3. Amer­i­ca’s child care sys­tem is also chron­i­cal­ly under­fund­ed, and this issue is exac­er­bat­ed by wide­spread staffing short­ages in the ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion field.

Explain­ing the Terms: Preschool, Ear­ly Child­hood Edu­ca­tion and Child Care

The KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter defines preschool” as edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ences offered in a group or class set­ting pri­or to kinder­garten. Chil­dren in pri­vate homes that pri­mar­i­ly pro­vide cus­to­di­al care are not includ­ed in this snap­shot while chil­dren enrolled in pro­grams spon­sored by fed­er­al, state or local agen­cies — includ­ing Head Start pro­grams — are con­sid­ered in preschool.

The umbrel­la term ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion” (ECE), describes a vari­ety of devel­op­men­tal­ly appro­pri­ate care and edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams offered from birth to kinder­garten. High-qual­i­ty ECE is cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive and pro­motes social and emo­tion­al learn­ing, phys­i­cal health and cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment. ECE can be offered in a num­ber of set­tings, includ­ing schools, child care facil­i­ties and faith-based institutions.

Child care” describes a spec­trum of care that starts with infant care and includes com­pre­hen­sive ECE pro­grams. This care may be cen­ter-based or fam­i­ly home-based and deliv­ered for­mal­ly or infor­mal­ly. School-aged pro­gram­ming that is offered before school or after school is also con­sid­ered child care.

Read more about the child care sys­tem and why it matters

Per­sis­tent Bar­ri­ers to Preschool for Low-Income Kids

The KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter tracked preschool enroll­ment by fam­i­ly income lev­el each year for near­ly 15 years — from 2005 to 2019 — and the find­ings are abun­dant­ly clear: Chil­dren from low-income fam­i­lies are less like­ly to access preschool com­pared to kids from high­er-income fam­i­lies. Over the entire peri­od, about 60% of low-income kids did not attend preschool while only 46% of high­er-income kids missed out on this opportunity.

These find­ings echo a large body of research demon­strat­ing that low-income chil­dren have less access to high-qual­i­ty ear­ly learn­ing pro­grams and face more bar­ri­ers to aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment in gen­er­al. Oth­er groups fac­ing sim­i­lar bar­ri­ers include chil­dren of col­or, Eng­lish-lan­guage learn­ers and chil­dren with disabilities.

Addi­tion­al Preschool Enroll­ment Find­ings by Race and Location

By race and ethnicity:

  • In 20172021, par­tic­i­pa­tion rates by race and eth­nic­i­ty showed that, for chil­dren ages 3 to 4, Lati­no, Amer­i­can Indi­an and mul­tira­cial kids were less like­ly to access preschool com­pared to their white, Black and Asian and Pacif­ic Islander peers. This range — describ­ing the share of kids not in preschool — runs from a high of 61% for Lati­no kids to a low of 51% for Asian and Pacif­ic Islander kids, accord­ing to the 2023 KIDS COUNT Data Book.
  • Between 2019 and 2021, preschool par­tic­i­pa­tion fell for all racial and eth­nic groups with avail­able data, but Asian Amer­i­can and Black chil­dren expe­ri­enced the largest drops, accord­ing to the lat­est Cen­sus Bureau data.
  • On aver­age, Black chil­dren attend low­er-qual­i­ty ECE pro­grams than their white peers, accord­ing to a recent analy­sis by the Nation­al Insti­tute for Ear­ly Edu­ca­tion Research. Low­er-qual­i­ty pro­grams can make it hard­er to achieve the ben­e­fits of ear­ly child­hood education.

By Region and State:

  • In 20172021, kids ages 3 to 4 in the nation’s West­ern, Mid­west­ern and South­ern regions were less like­ly to access preschool rel­a­tive to their North­east­ern peers. This range — describ­ing the share of kids not in preschool — runs from a high of 57% in the West ver­sus a low of 45% in the Northeast.
  • Also from 20172021 but at the state-lev­el: The share of kids miss­ing out on preschool var­ied wide­ly, from a low of 39% for kids in the North­east­ern states of Con­necti­cut and New Jer­sey to a high of 69% of kids in both North Dako­ta and West Vir­ginia. Across the nation, 10 states — con­cen­trat­ed in the South, Mid­west and West — report­ed that at least 60% of their chil­dren, ages 3 to 4, were not in preschool.
  • Between 20122016 and 20172021, 32 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia saw preschool enroll­ment rates fall as shown in the map below.
State-level look at young children not in preschool

Tak­ing Action to Improve Preschool Access and Quality

Ear­ly child­hood is a crit­i­cal peri­od of devel­op­ment, and expe­ri­ences dur­ing this phase lay a foun­da­tion for long-term health and well-being. Declin­ing access to preschool is espe­cial­ly alarm­ing giv­en the following:

  • ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion is strong­ly linked to lat­er stu­dent suc­cess and pos­i­tive health outcomes;
  • the nation is already fac­ing an edu­ca­tion cri­sis, with stu­dents less like­ly to reach aca­d­e­m­ic pro­fi­cien­cy after the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic and with aca­d­e­m­ic dis­par­i­ties by race and income lev­el persisting;
  • kids who can ben­e­fit the most from ear­ly learn­ing pro­grams are already the least like­ly to access such pro­grams; and
  • ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion improves school readi­ness, and stu­dents who enter kinder­garten behind their peers may strug­gle for years to catch up.

Many par­ents rely on preschool and child care pro­grams in order to work. When fam­i­lies have access to afford­able, high-qual­i­ty ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion, both kids and their par­ents ben­e­fit. Pri­or­i­tiz­ing equi­table access to such pro­grams is essential.

Experts rec­om­mend a range of actions to bol­ster access, including:

  • increas­ing state invest­ment in preschool pro­gram­ming to expand access and improve qual­i­ty, as out­lined by the Nation­al Insti­tute for Ear­ly Edu­ca­tion Research;
  • com­mit­ting long-term fed­er­al fund­ing — com­men­su­rate with the esti­mat­ed cost of qual­i­ty pro­grams and the cost of reach­ing all eli­gi­ble chil­dren — to sta­bi­lize the preschool and child care infrastructure;
  • expand­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s role in lever­ag­ing tech­ni­cal sup­port to improve state preschool pro­grams; and 
  • direct­ing fed­er­al, state and local pro­grams to pri­or­i­tize reach­ing chil­dren who could ben­e­fit the most from ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion and chil­dren who are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly underserved.

More Resources Relat­ed to Ear­ly Child­hood Education

Preschool and child care indi­ca­tors on the KIDS COUNT Data Center:

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