Our Insights

Don’t forget me at three—state pre-K provision for 3-year-olds lags far behind

Infants and toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary-aged children encompass the field of early childhood education, giving the impression that all children from birth through age 8, fit neatly into one of three categories. But state policies suggest something quite different for 3-year-old children as they often are neglected when state preschool programs are designed and funded.

Developmentally, 3-year-olds are not toddlers, pushing them out of the infant/toddler category, and most state preschool programs exclude or restrict the enrollment of 3-year-olds through eligibility criteria, pushing them out of the preschool category as well. The 2018 State of Preschool yearbook illustrates the impact of these policies.

During the 2017-2018 school year, only 30 states enrolled 3-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs, and most of those states (21) served fewer than 10% of the state’s 3-year-old population. In fact, 15 states with public preschool programs specifically dedicate funding to support only 4-year-old children. But even in those states that do provide funding to serve all preschool-aged children, enrollment of 3-year-olds lags far behind enrollment of 4-year-olds. As a result, only 5.7% of the nation’s 3-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool in 2017-2018 and they comprised only 14% of children served in state-funded preschool programs.

The map illustrates how 3-year-old enrollment in state pre-K varies around the country. Washington D.C. and Vermont served over 60% of both 3- and 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs, though both still serve significantly more 4’s than 3’s. However, this is a far higher percentage than any other state, with Illinois coming in next at 22%. By contrast other states that serve more than 50% of their 4-year-olds (Florida, Georgia, Iowa, New York, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and West Virginia) serve 5% or less of their 3-year-old population.

Low enrollment of 3-year-olds isn’t unique to state-funded preschool programs. It also characterizes Head Start and special education though not to the same extreme. Nationally, 43% of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state funded preschool, preschool special education, or Head Start, but only 17% of 3-year-olds are served by these three programs. In recent years, the disparity in access to Head Start between 3- and 4-year-olds has shrunk so that Head Start serves 8% of 3-year-olds and 9% of 4-year-olds.

Not surprisingly, states’ financial investments in 3-year-old public preschool programs reflect enrollment policies. Less than one fifth of all state spending for public preschool is used to serve 3-year-olds. Overall, increased investments in state preschool programs have been unimpressive since the Great Recession, and lack of growth is most apparent at age 3.

Cross study comparisons suggest that the immediate and longer-term benefits of a high-quality preschool program are greater for children who have access to two years of preschool than for those who have just one. State policy clearly is not aligned with the research, and the risk of this departure from the models that supposedly are behind the push for preschool education is that the promised benefits will not materialize. Until state policies and investments start to follow what we know from research, too many 3-year-olds will continue to miss out on a critical year of exposure to high quality preschool.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.