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New Report on Preschool Participation Nationally Highlights Vast Inequities

November 8, 2007

The nation is failing to meet the need for preschool education, and those with the least access are children from low-income, poorly educated families who live in the West and Midwest, according to a report released today by an early education research unit of Rutgers University.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) also pointed out in Who Goes to Preschool and Why Does it Matter? that Hispanic children suffer the most from limited access.

In 2005 two-thirds of 4-year-olds and more than 40 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in some kind of preschool program, a dramatic difference from the 5 percent of 3-year-olds and 16 percent of 4-year-olds in 1965, according to the Current Population Survey.

“Pre-K participation in the United States remains highly unequal,” said Steve Barnett, report author and NIEER director. “The rising tide of preschool education participation has not lifted all boats equally and the factors that predicted inequality in 1991 still predict inequality in 2005.”

Preschool education programs play an increasingly vital role in child development and school readiness, said Barnett. Early learning’s impacts persist across children’s life spans, affecting educational achievement, earnings, health, and even crime and delinquency.

Recent research demonstrates that all children can benefit from good preschool education, but despite progress over the last decade much remains to be done. According to Barnett, far too many children attend no program at all, and most programs other than Head Start and state-funded pre-K are educationally weak and ineffective.

Using data from the National Household Education Surveys (NHES), NIEER identified important differences in how income, education, ethnicity, family structure, maternal employment and geography relate to preschool education participation.

Key findings of the report include:

• Children are much more likely to attend pre-K at 4 years of age, rather than at 3.
• Sixty-nine percent of 4-year-olds and 43 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in some type of preschool program in 2005, up from 59 percent and 41 percent, respectively, in 1991.

Growth Factors
• Preschool participation has increased at the same pace for children whether or not their mothers work outside the home.
• The growth in pre-K participation is due in part to employed mothers seeking child care, but that is secondary to the increased demand for early education.

• Hispanic children have by far the lowest pre-K participation rate.
• From 1991 to 2005 participation rates increased for all ethnic groups.
• Four-year-old participation rose from 59 to 69 percent in that time frame for White children; 68 to 75 percent for African-American; 50 to 59 percent for Hispanic; and 62 to 81 percent for those in the “other” category including Asian Americans and Native Americans.
• The growth in 3-year-old participation from 1991 to 2005 rose from 44 to 53 percent for African-American children; 21 to 31 percent for Hispanic; 43 to 47 percent for “other” while the percentage for White children remained 44 percent for 1991 and 2005.

• Children in poverty have lower participation rates than others despite the growth in federal and state programs.
• Children in families with annual incomes of $20,000 to $40,000 have the lowest participation rates at age 4.
• Four-year-old enrollment rises sharply with incomes above $60,000.
• For 3-year-olds, participation drops rapidly with income and children in families with annual incomes of $20,000 to $30,000 experience the lowest rates.
• Families with modest incomes may face great difficulties in obtaining high-quality preschool education since their private options are unlikely to be as good as Head Start and other public programs.

Maternal Employment
• Participation rates for 4-year-olds with employed mothers rose from 61 percent in 1991 to 74 percent in 2005.
• Levels of participation for 3-year-olds remained about the same, a third for mothers not in the labor force and nearly half for those formally employed.

Regional Variations
• All regions progressed but the West and Midwest fell behind the Northeast and South.
• Four-old participation rates increase from 1991-2005, by region:
* Northeast – 63 to 77 percent;
* South – 57 to 71 percent;
* Midwest – 61 to 66 percent;
* West – 58 to 64 percent;
• For 3-year-olds, the Northeast and to a lesser extent the West, made progress while the South lost ground.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (, a unit of the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research. NIEER is supported through grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts and others. The Pew Charitable Trusts ( is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life. For more information, visit