A lot has been written and said about the rate of return on an investment in a college education. Current estimates suggest that the average college-educated person will earn about $1.3 million more during his or her lifetime than a person with a high school education. The average annual income of a worker with a college degree is $19,500 more than an employee with a high school degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Society in general also benefits when people seek undergraduate and graduate degrees. College graduates tend to vote more often, participate in community activities on a more regular basis, and volunteer to serve others in greater numbers. They also earn more money and, therefore, pay more taxes. Because of these and other important factors, investing public funds in a college education makes sense.
What about the other end of the spectrum? Most people agree that advanced degrees for our nation’s young adults are a sound investment, but what about the very young? The recent “Attracting, Developing and Maintaining Human Capital’’ study conducted by the Pew Center on the States shows there is a greater return on investment in early childhood education than from a college degree. From a state’s perspective, the study says there is an increase in earnings per capita. For every dollar spent on early childhood education, the state realizes a return of $2.78 in terms of greater productivity and reduced remedial education over the life of that individual.
We know that 90 percent of brain growth occurs by the age of five. High-quality early childhood education can channel that growth into productive human development characteristics by helping to create students who like to read, engage in math, and are ready to learn by the time they reach elementary school.
Neglecting early childhood education, though, has significant negative impacts. For every 100 children that leave first grade without the ability to read, 88 of them will be below reading standards by the fourth grade. A majority of these non-readers will not graduate high school. Given that 7,000 teenagers drop out of high school in the United States every day, it is understandable why our nation ranks 25th among 34 developed countries in math and 17th in science.
In a global economy, it is extremely important for youngsters to develop problem-solving, communication and critical-thinking skills at an early age in order to compete in the 21st century. These skills help children immeasurably in their later lives, but they also serve as the foundation for a national economy, which in turn, creates jobs and ensures a better future for all.
On average, every child who drops out of school, uses drugs, and/or becomes a career criminal costs society about $2.5 million over the lifetime of that individual in terms of increased social services and oftentimes incarceration, according to the Pew Center study. The difference between that person and a college-educated member of society who will earn, on average, $1.3 million more over their lifetime means a net loss of about $3.8 million to society. Therefore, investing in a child early on makes a lot of sense since early childhood education programs are the best indicators of high school completion and college graduation.
Fortunately, throughout Pennsylvania and the Northeastern part of our country, college students study pre-kindergarten education. Once they become a pre-school or primary teacher, they are joined by hundreds of volunteers who fan out into their neighborhoods and help young children in many ways. Partnering with many dedicated organizations and companies, including the United Way of Wyoming Valley’s “Success by Six” and PNC Bank’s “Growing up Great” programs, these teachers and volunteers help thousands of youngsters enter kindergarten and primary grades with a thirst for knowledge and an ability to learn.
The Misericordia University Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children Program (www.misericordia.edu/wwc), for example, provides free housing, scholarships and subsidies for early childhood education for the children of the single mothers enrolled in the program. The Women with Children program helps to break the cycle of poverty some single mothers experience and allows them to finish their college education. It is the best way to help them do better and it also provides a solid preschool and school-age education for their children as well.
Early childhood education is not just the responsibility of a parent or grandparent — it is everyone’s. Volunteering to help – whether it’s assisting single mothers, reading to children, or encouraging pre-kindergarten education in your community – makes a big difference. Early childhood intervention not only helps the individual and the family, but society as well. In short, we can pay a small amount now to help children learn early on or we can pay a lot more later to remedy the impact that a lack of a good early childhood education has on people and their communities.
Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., where he occasionally teaches economics.