New study proves that early learning is an even better return on investment than we thought

Serenity with her mom

by Judie Jerald


I have spent many years developing and implementing birth to five early childhood programs in the United States. During those years, I have seen firsthand the long-term benefits of comprehensive, continuous early childhood education (ECE) services for disadvantaged children and their families.

Early childhood leaders have long known that ECE is a really good long-term investment. The latest research from Nobel Laureate James J. Heckman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, The Life Cycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program,” confirms and expands this knowledge. 

This new analysis, conducted on the Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC) and the Carolina Approach to Responsive Education (CARE) research experiment that began in the 1970s, focuses on the long-term benefits of effective early childhood programs. This is a key difference from many recent studies, which focus primarily on short-term academic and “school readiness” skills.

Why is this difference in focus important?

We have known for many years that quality comprehensive services for children can change the course of a child’s life in the long term. These services include health, mental health and other human development dimensions.

We also know that starting early is key. It’s crucial to work with and support parents so they can better take care of themselves and their families. But we have not seen these long-term benefits demonstrated in a 35-year study in the way Heckman’s research shows.

The information in the new Heckman study has some powerful messages.

The study shows a significant increase in return on investment through early childhood programming from 7%, which was previously thought to be a good investment, to 13%. That’s a return of 13 percent for every $1 invested. That’s impressive. 

The study’s recognition of the importance of starting at birth is, in my opinion, long overdue. The Early Head Start Impact Study (2006) has shown that when children and their families receive comprehensive services from birth, the results for 3- and 4-year-olds are better than for those children and families who do not receive those services early on.

The Heckman study also shows us that the need for quality programs is essential. It raises questions about the nationwide need for highly-qualified early childhood teachers and caregivers and the need for high state and federal early childhood standards. It also raises questions about the need for ongoing professional development in the field.

In my experience, early childhood courses and degrees are not readily available at many colleges and universities. Plus, the low wages that graduates in the early childhood field can expect to earn are a deterrent to building a high-quality early childhood workforce. This is an even bigger issue for teachers of infants and toddlers.

Another benefit of the ABC and CARE experiments: the program allowed parents to enter the workforce and increase their earnings. Meanwhile, their children were experiencing the quality learning environments that they needed. This two-generational effect is worth noting. Parental engagement has been critical to the federal Head Start program since its beginning and it is encouraging to see this valuable practice recognized.

High-quality early childhood programs are important for all of our children in the U.S. They are absolutely critical for our children from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom live in resource-poor, rural areas where opportunities are limited.

This study goes a long way in describing and demonstrating both the importance and the positive effects of quality early childhood programs that start early and are comprehensive and continuous. The benefits are clear and the costs pay for themselves over time in both economic and social gains.

Our children are our most valuable resource—how can we not help them be the best that they can be?

Join us to start advocating for high-quality early childhood education today.

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Judie Jerald is the Senior Early Childhood Advisor for Save the Children Action Network. Before joining SCAN in January 2016, she served as the Early Childhood Senior Director for U.S. Programs at Save the Children, where she designed and directed the home-based Early Steps to School Success, a signature program for Save the Children that operates in 14 states. Before joining, Judie served as the National Director of the Early Head Start Program. Previous to that, she was the founder and director of Early Education Services, an umbrella agency that provides comprehensive services to young children and their families throughout Windham County, Vermont.