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Do you need to pay for preschool?

President Obama's proposal for universal preschool for 4-year-olds has stirred up the debate about its benefits and cost.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 22, 2013 4:45PM

This post comes from Christine Ryan Jyoti at LearnVest.


Image: Family (© Corbis)Since President Barack Obama proposed making high-quality preschool education available to every American 4-year-old in his 2013 State of the Union address, the debate over the benefits of preschool has been thrown into the national spotlight.


As every parent knows, preschool must all too often be purchased for a hefty price. In fact, for many parents, preschool expenses are one of the most surprising costs of having a young child.


Many of us pay the asking price, but is that cost really necessary? Are there less expensive options? And is preschool itself really all that important?


We spoke with the experts to help you decide how to best invest in your kids.


How much will it cost?

About 30% of the country's 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in private preschools and child care centers. Prices can vary radically depending on what kind of program you choose and where you live.


Getting a firm number on cost is difficult. "Data on the amount that parents are paying for private preschool programs is not collected in any nationwide effort," says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.


According to a recent report by Child Care Aware America, parents, on average, are paying anywhere between $3,900 (Mississippi) to nearly $11,700 (Massachusetts) for full-time, center-based care for a 4-year-old.


Those numbers are even higher in urban areas. Live in New York and want to send your little one to Fieldston in Manhattan? That'll cost you $39,525 a year. Maybe you want your offspring to rub shoulders with the Obama girls at Sidwell Friends School in D.C. You'll be looking at $33,268 a year for the lower school.


The benefits of preschool

"Children need to develop a healthy and strong brain architecture," says Todd Grindal, an education expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "The experiences kids have in the early years have profound effects on their futures." Considering a child's brain grows to 90% of its adult size by age 5, the first few years are critical.


Preschool aids this development in the following ways:

  • Academic achievement. Studies show that the benefits of preschool include overall academic achievement and school success, less grade repetition and special education, and increased high school graduation rates. According to Barnett, high-quality preschool programs benefit children from middle-income families as well as from low-income families.
  • School readiness. "A number of large-scale studies demonstrate that participation in high-quality, center-based pre-K programs positively influences all children's kindergarten readiness," says Barnett. "Positive impacts include gains in achievement test scores, including early literacy and math skills, as well as improvements in social and emotional development."
  • Social/emotional development. Nobel Laureate James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, has noted that the long-term impacts of early education on social and emotional development -- the skills that allow people to interact appropriately and effectively with others -- may be the most important takeaways from preschool.
  • Social progress. Heckman's research indicates a 7% to 10% annual return on investment in high-quality preschool, an ROI which has recently gained attention due to Obama's State of the Union address. Heckman argues that preschool is the time to teach kids the "soft" skills (like focusing, keeping an open mind and controlling their tempers) they'll eventually need to succeed in the job market.

A 2010 report from the Institute for a Competitive Workforce concludes that "for every dollar invested today, savings range from $2.50 to as much as $17 in the years ahead."


"High-quality preschool has also been found to reduce participants' future reliance on welfare and likeliness of being imprisoned," says Barnett. In fact, research from the Ounce of Prevention Fund shows that at-risk children who don't receive quality preschool education are 25% more likely than their peers to drop out of school and 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Can kids get by without preschool?

As many parents can attest, there's a lot of pressure to send your kids to preschool. In fact, three-quarters of children ages 3 and 4 whose families have incomes of $75,000 and above are enrolled in preschool.


But many parents seem conflicted about whether it's a need or a "should."


Katy, a mother of two in Vancouver, Wash., believes kids can do just fine without preschool. "I think children can learn all they need to from their parents and the families they socialize with, but that the socializing is important -- being with other kids, making relationships outside the family," she says. That said, her 4-year-old son attended preschool part time, and her 2-year-old daughter will as well.


Some parents feel that preschool is nothing but day care with a higher price tag -- but forgoing the experience comes at a price. "Preschool is day care by another name," says Morgan, the father of a preschool grad in Alexandria, Va. "But people feel that they have to do this stuff or their kids will somehow miss a shot at getting into Harvard. It's the Toddler Industrial Complex."


And some industry critics argue that kids are better off at home with their parents. "If family care is an option, that's certainly preferable to center-based programs," says Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.


Burke argues that preschool primarily benefits disadvantaged children. "Even those benefits dissipate over time, leaving children who attended preschool no better off academically than those who did not," she says, pointing to recent research.


Not so, says Barnett. "The most recent peer-reviewed meta-analysis summarizes the results of 123 studies and found that despite some decline in effects after children entered school, on average, the effects did not disappear and remained substantial."


How can you get preschool without the price tag?

Largely, the research shows that, yes, kids are in need of the skill sets and socialization provided by the preschool experience.


But can you extract those benefits without the traditional structure and its hefty price? "Beyond proper nutrition and health care, kids need supportive relationships with caregivers and positive stimulation," says Grindal.


If you're concerned with the price tag of more traditional preschools, consider one of these alternatives:


Cooperative preschools

If you have some personal flexibility, a cooperative preschool, where parents take a more hands-on role, could be an option. In most co-ops, your tuition makes you a part-owner of the school, and while there is a formal teacher, you'll be expected to pitch in on a regular basis to experience your kid's classroom in action.


Megan, a mom of two in Brooklyn, N.Y., originally thought preschool wasn't necessary. "I thought the whole application process was madness," she says, referring to the 100-person wait lists, early application deadlines and stringent assessments for 2-year olds, not to mention the cost.


Instead, she found a small cooperative preschool for her 3-year-old son. "After seeing the positive effect it has had on him, I am totally pro-preschool," says Megan. "His manners, concentration, and thought process have all improved so much. He loves it and has a great relationship with all the kids and his teacher."


Structured at-home play

Not sold on the necessity of preschool -- and willing and able to remain home with your child? In that case, be prepared to put together a "program" of activities that could include regular play dates, spending time at local parks, enrolling in age-appropriate classes, and visiting your library, museums and craft stores.


Melanie, a mom of three in Montgomery County, Md., chose not to enroll her youngest child in preschool. A former teacher, she sent her 9- and 11-year-old daughters to part-time preschool when they were 4. "For us, preschool was mainly for socializing with other kids and to prepare them to work with a teacher other than myself," she says.


Why did she keep her 4-year-old son home? "I felt comfortable with the amount of socializing he was doing through play dates and various classes," she says. She's now teaching her son to read and uses hands-on, play-based activities to stimulate conversations on math, science and history.


"I truly do believe in preschool," says Melanie. "But I knew for our family I would be able to cater to my son's individual academic needs in a style I preferred."


More on LearnVest and MSN Money:

Mar 22, 2013 5:53PM
If you want your children to go to preschool. Get a job and pay for it. I worked hard to pay for my 4 children. I am the the working class. If your too lazy. Do not have them
Mar 22, 2013 9:52PM
I worked in a good preschool.  It is what made me swear I would never put my children in one.  I WANTED to make a difference, but I realized at the end of the day I had such little quality time with each student.  It was basically managing the herd & throwing some abcs at them.  I highly recommend, if you can, be a stay at home Mom.  Even if I had to live in a one bedroom apartment to do so, it would be worth it for my children.  What I provide my children is wayyyy better than anything any high priced preschool could.
Mar 22, 2013 7:18PM
You can home school your preschoolers, and help in their school throughout their school life.  You can also send them part time to preschool, to ease the cost.
Mar 22, 2013 7:16PM
Parents should pay for *everything*they want for their child. And childless people should be exempt. I am not an ATM.
Mar 26, 2013 11:43PM
I'm 25 and I didn't go to preschool. I was reading at age 3 and by age 12 I was testing at a college reading level. So do you absolutely need preschool to be successful? No. However, I had college educated parents and grandparents and an older sister who read to me on a regular basis. I believe that low income families, families that are less likely to be well-educated, really need preschool to give their kids a better chance.

I think that preschool should not be mandated, it should be a parental decision. However, it should be available to all parents who want it and it should be fully subsidized for households at or below the poverty line and then phase out as partial subsides up to incomes at twice the poverty line, which would presently be $47,100 for a household of 4.

I know our country doesn't have money to spend, but we're spending it in all the wrong places. Cutting on education should be the absolute last place we cut. I say cut the military by a third before you start cutting away at our children's future.

Mar 27, 2013 1:50PM
I believe that all children should go to preschool but the taxpayer should not pay directly. I would recommend that a tax deduction be given for anyone who sends their children.
Mar 25, 2013 3:46AM
Another  way to tax the homeowners to death with school taxes, while the parents of the preschoolers sock their money away for vacations, pleasure times and what not and the tax payer becomes the baby sitter. Besides, the child will see less of its parents and giving more time for the parents to fool around.  
Mar 22, 2013 7:04PM
Why bother paying for it.  Methinks another government program is on the way and it'll be another freebie compliments of the taxpayers.  I think preschool should occur at home with family.  We should not have to care for people from womb to tomb and everywhere in between.
Mar 22, 2013 6:25PM


Preschool was originally started because children from smart  parents almost always showed up in kindergarten smarter than their classmates because mommy and daddy had been teaching them from age 0. Someone suggested putting the kids of the dumber  parents in school at age 2 with smart teachers (at government expense) so that when they showed up in kindergarten they would be equally smart  and end discrimination.  

Mar 25, 2013 4:28PM
Government keep you hands off our children.
Mar 25, 2013 4:25PM
Hillary Clinton would love to get hold of our pre school kids. To turn them into good little servants of the government. Remember "It takes a village"
Mar 24, 2013 7:59AM

We just went through 4K, and, I can now say I support 4K IF it is for socialization purposes. I've seen wonderful progress in children from bad/abusive/neglectful parent homes and I've seen wonderful progress in children who (very obviously) have been in preschool since they were six weeks old. For the better parented set, I think 4K is not mandatory, but, until the kids are all together in the classroom, it is hard to tell... In my experience, I've found kids with Stay at Home Parents that are dads to be better socialized than those with Stay At Home Parents that are usual...4K is addressing the symptoms of the problem. A cultural lack of pride in parenting. I see 3K not very far on the horizon in my city. The parents simply aren't getting better at parenting...

We toured a private academic 4K, and, that is not what 4K is for. That 4k cost $14,995 per year. We toured a Montessori 4K, and, I wonder why these techniques for teaching are more used in the public setting? That 4K cost $10,000 per year. For both of the private schools, I am not including the cost of application, registration or enrollment or even food and uniforms, let along transportation (all of these costs cut into the grocery budget, but, since most of the people I see have plenty of extra fat...I don't think the sacrifice will be too great for too many).


Luckily, for us, 4K is now a part of our public school, and, from the quality of parenting I'm not seeing, I expect 3K to follow shortly.

Mar 22, 2013 7:32PM
Preschool is a great option- it teaches children that they have to learn to accept disclipline and structure from adults other than their parents, It prepares them to respect other authority figures as well. You can't teach that at home.
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