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Research Questions

  1. What do prior studies indicate about the cost of pre-K?
  2. What is the estimated per-child cost of a pre-K program at the provider and system levels based on cost data collection?
  3. What are key sources of cost variation across providers?
  4. What is the per-child cost of a pre-K program based on a cost model that assumes certain high-quality features?
  5. What is the estimated incremental cost associated with key quality elements?
  6. Is state-provided funding sufficient to cover the costs of high-quality programs?

States and localities throughout the United States are expanding their investments in pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs. Although spending on publicly funded pre-K programs is well documented, relatively less is known about the true cost to deliver the programs, especially considering varying quality standards and accounting for the resources used at both the provider and system levels. This report attempts to help fill that knowledge gap.

The researchers examine seven pre-K systems across six jurisdictions and use two analytical methods — cost data collection and cost modeling — to estimate the cost of a high-quality pre-K program. They also explore whether state-provided funding appears to be adequate to cover the costs of providing high-quality programs. Finally, the researchers outline the challenges in understanding full pre-K program costs and the implications for policymakers and future research. Having a better understanding of the expected costs may inform the initial planning for or expansion of a pre-K investment, guide the mechanism for reimbursing providers of the pre-K program, support estimates of the incremental cost of further quality investments, and even identify the quality enhancements that are the most cost-effective.

Key Findings

  • Prior research shows a range of $12,500 to $13,600 (in 2019 dollars using national-level prices, which adjust for regional price differences) for the per-child cost of a high-quality publicly funded pre-K program that operates for a full school day (e.g., 5.5 to 6.5 hours) and for an academic year.
  • Cost data collected for the 2018–2019 academic year from 36 pre-K providers in the state-funded pre-K programs in Michigan, Oregon, and Tennessee reveal tremendous variation in cost per child within systems; in particular, per-child cost was as much as two times higher at the high end of the cost range than at the low end.
  • For three systems for which the researchers obtained system-level cost information, there was a wide range in estimated per-child cost, from a few hundred dollars per child to a few thousand dollars per child.
  • Key sources of variation that drive differences in per-child expenditures at the provider level include annual program hours, staffing structure, staff compensation, and facility costs.
  • Model-based national estimates indicate that the per-child cost of high-quality pre-K at the provider level would be about $12,700, with a range of about $9,800 to $15,400 (2019 dollars) across the seven pre-K systems modeled. Including system-level costs would increase these estimates.
  • The estimated cost per child of a set of high-quality pre-K elements examined in the cost model varied from as little as about $300 per child (for employing a child-level developmental screener) to as much as about $3,100 per child (for employing lead teachers who are more highly skilled and the associated increase in their compensation).
  • The average reimbursement rates for several of the state-funded pre-K systems examined were below the estimated per-child cost for at least some of the providers that were sampled. Thus, providers would need to fill the gap with other sources of public or private funds to sustain their operations.

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and RAND Social and Economic Well-Being and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For this document, different permissions for re-use apply. Please refer to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation section on our permissions page.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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