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  1. Ramon, Ismaila PhD, MPH
  2. Chattopadhyay, Sajal K. PhD
  3. Barnett, W. Steven PhD
  4. Hahn, Robert A. PhD, MPH
  5. the Community Preventive Services Task Force


Context: A recent Community Guide systematic review found that early childhood education (ECE) programs improve educational, social, and health-related outcomes and advance health equity because many are designed to increase enrollment for high-risk children. This follow-up economic review examines how the economic benefits of center-based ECE programs compare with their costs.


Evidence Acquisition: Kay and Pennucci from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, whose meta-analysis formed the basis of the Community Guide effectiveness review, conducted a benefit-cost analysis of ECE programs for low-income children in Washington State. We performed an electronic database search using both effectiveness and economic key words to identify additional cost-benefit studies published through May 2015. Kay and Pennucci also provided us with national-level benefit-cost estimates for state and district and federal Head Start programs.


Evidence Synthesis: The median benefit-to-cost ratio from 11 estimates of earnings gains, the major benefit driver for 3 types of ECE programs (ie, state and district, federal Head Start, and model programs), was 3.39:1 (interquartile interval [IQI] = 2.48-4.39). The overall median benefit-to-cost ratio from 7 estimates of total benefits, based on all benefit components including earnings gains, was 4.19:1 (IQI = 2.62-8.60), indicating that for every dollar invested in the program, there was a return of $4.19 in total benefits.


Conclusions: ECE programs promote both equity and economic efficiency. Evidence indicates there is positive social return on investment in ECE irrespective of the type of ECE program. The adoption of a societal perspective is crucial to understand all costs and benefits of ECE programs regardless of who pays for the costs or receives the benefits.