Research shows Head Start pays for itself, pays off for children

Head Start is worth the investment, according to UC Berkeley research. (iStock photo.)

Head Start is worth the investment, according to UC Berkeley research. (iStock photo.)

Berkeley – Expanding Head Start is good public policy and will pay for itself, according to new research by faculty in the University of California, Berkeley’s economics department and Goldman School of Public Policy.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average Head Start expenditure per child is about $8,000. The UC Berkeley researchers found that every dollar invested generates $2 in future earnings for children enrolled in the program.

According to UC Berkeley economics professor Christopher Walters, “Many children who attend Head Start would otherwise attend other subsidized preschools. Moving kids from one form of preschool to another yields minimal benefits but also entails little cost to taxpayers. And since preschools tend to be oversubscribed, Head Start may add significantly to total preschool enrollment, which our estimates (along with a large existing literature) suggest pays for itself."

Head Start, the federal preschool program for children from low-income families, has been studied widely since its inception in 1965, and experts have found the results to be a mixed bag.

Early research found large positive effects on children’s cognitive skills, while the Department of Health and Human Services’ large 2002 Head Start Impact Study seemed to show fewer benefits. The latter study, which began following enrollees in 2002 and stayed with them through third grade, found that all the academic advances the children had made during their Head Start year faded quickly over time.

The policy brief, based on research by faculty affiliated with UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, “Revisiting the impact of Head Start,” highlights new data showing that the earlier negative results from the Head Start Impact Study were misleading.

The brief finds errors in earlier studies, clarifies what was being measured and clearly shows that Head Start is of great benefit to the disadvantaged children it serves over the course of their lives, according to its author, Claire Montailoux.

“Researchers have often estimated the effects of attending Head Start compared to a mix of home care and other preschool programs. When Head Start is compared specifically to at-home care, we find that it has large positive impacts on test scores for low-income children.” said Walters.

Key findings include:

  • Head Start raises children’s cognitive and social development. Earlier studies showing limited benefits to children in Head Start compared them to a control group made up of children in other preschool programs and children receiving care at home, diluting the positive impacts seen in the Head Start group.
  • Head Start dramatically increases parents’ involvement with their children while in preschool and after. For example, participation in Head Start increases the time parents spend reading to children by 20 percent, and Head Start leads absent fathers to spend one additional day per month with their children.
  • Taking into account the new estimates of the benefits of Head Start – including better health outcomes, lower criminality and higher future earnings – a cost-benefit analysis shows that the benefits of Head Start well exceed its costs.

The brief drew largely from other analyses of Head Start by UC Berkeley researchers, including: