The best education investments start well before school

In debates over education policy, we often hear new ideas about investing large amounts of funds in higher education in the form of free tuition, fellowships, and loan forgiveness programs, among others.

This discourse overlooks strong reasons to devote most new funds that can be garnered to prenatal care, parenting, childcare centers, preschools and other forms of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten education, as well as to primary schools. The reason is elementary: Education is a process that takes “raw material” and gradually shapes it into the desired outcome. Ample evidence shows that once the die is cast, it is difficult to recast; it is much less costly, inhuman and dollar terms, to do it right the first time.

Viewing children as a raw material may grate on our moral sensibilities. But the data are unmistakable. For instance, the brain’s ability to strengthen some connections (to create memories) and weaken other connections (to let go of less important information) declines after puberty, which impacts our ability to learn).

Currently, students arrive at colleges underprepared both academically and psychologically. This is evident in the extensive and growing investment colleges must make in remedial education and student supports. Even though college standards have been downgraded and watered down, at least a third of the students arrive underprepared.

A study shows that nearly two-thirds of students are underprepared for college (at least in terms of math and reading scores). Another finds that almost one-third of the students who took the ACT in 2015 failed to meet the benchmarks in any of the four academic areas tested.

In 2015, nearly four out of ten (38 percent) of 12th-grade students performed below the basic achievement level in math and nearly three out of ten (28 percent) performed below the basic achievement level in reading. A 2017 report, which surveyed 911 two- and four-year colleges found over half a million students enrolled in remedial courses. For over 22 percent of the schools included in the study, the majority of new students needed one or more remedial courses.

Students’ preparation, or lack thereof, for college concerns not only academic preparation. “More than 85% of college students described feeling ‘overwhelmed’, and 51% reported feeling at some point in the past year that ‘things were hopeless,'” according to the American College Health Association’s annual survey in 2018.

Investments in children’s health and early education, especially for children from low-income families, have high MVPFs (Marginal Values of Public Funds) scores, according to a 2019 study conducted by Harvard economists Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser. They found that the average MVPF for “direct investments in low-income children’s health and education” is more than 5, while investments in programs for adults tend to have MVPFs of 0.5 to 2.

Participation in early childhood education raises high school graduation rates and lowers both the rate at which students need special education and the rate at which they are required to repeat a grade. Research also demonstrates that early learning can result in higher grades in math and reading, improved test scores for participants starting in preschool and continuing through age 21, and increased likelihoods that young people will remain in school and enroll in college, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

A rather different, though strong, reason to favor early education is that all people would benefit from it, while only about half of the U.S. population will earn a postsecondary degree of any kind. Champions of higher education may well argue that if higher education is more affordable, many more young people will be able to earn degrees. But there are many other reasons young people choose a vocational track. Hence the merit of investing educational dollars in improvements in career and technical education at the high school level.

An important secondary issue is: If more funding is to be allocated to early education, should they be invested in providing quality childcare centers or more opportunities for parents to spend time with their children? France invested heavily in childcare centers. Many social democracies enable parents to stay home during their children’s early years.

The education level at which funds are invested is not determined solely by congressional committees or an executive agency such as the Department of Education. These decisions are made by a large array of different actors, including parents, local school boards, municipalities, states, the Department of Education and several congressional committees, among others.

Hence, there is no realistic way to create a central education board that could decide how to spend educational dollars and thereby increase the share of funding for early education (even if one favored such a board).

But congressional hearings could call attention to the growing imbalance, foster a public dialogue on over-attention to higher education and layout some changes Congress could make in those educational funds it controls.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. Click here to watch a recent, four-minute video called “Political and Social Life after Trump.” His latest book, “Reclaiming Patriotism,” was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without charge.