The appeal of universal programs rests in part on simplicity

A summary of my paper with my colleague Marta Lachowska on the Kalamazoo Promise recently was published in Education Next. (The summary even received a tweet from Arne Duncan!) The Kalamazoo Promise is a program begun in 2005, under which anonymous private donors promised to provide all graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools with up to 4 years of free tuition at public colleges and universities in the United States.

Our paper relied on one aspect of the Kalamazoo Promise that provides a “natural experiment”. Promise eligibility requires that students be continuously enrolled in Kalamazoo Public Schools since the beginning of 9th grade. Our paper compared the behavior and academic achievement of high school students who were “Promise eligible”, versus high school students who were “Promise ineligible”, based on length of enrollment in KPS, from before to after the Promise announcement in 2005.

We found statistically significant and large effects of the Promise on improving the behavior of all students, and on improving high school GPA for African-American students.  The point estimates of effects on all students’ GPA were positive, but insignificantly different from zero. Some of the estimated effects are large. For example, in the 2007-2008 school year, the estimated Promise effect on the GPA of African-American students is an increase of 0.7 points, on a four-point scale.

I think several points from these findings might be relevant to early childhood education advocates.

First, this study, like many other studies, shows that there are definitely many interventions after early childhood that can make a difference in educational attainment and life prospects. I think it is both a political mistake and substantively wrong to argue that early childhood education inherently has a higher rate of return than later interventions. There are many later interventions with high rates of return, for example some high school tutoring and counseling programs, and demand-oriented adult job training programs. The argument for early childhood education is that it has a high benefit/cost ratio or a high rate of return, not that other interventions don’t also have a high rate of return.

Second, I do think it is true that many later interventions are more complicated to implement than early childhood education. In early childhood education, we are essentially adding learning time. The research evidence suggests that if this is implemented reasonably well, by a typical government agency, we get long-term benefits that significantly exceed costs.

For many later interventions, implementation is more complex, and more politically and substantively difficult. For example, improving teacher quality and school quality in K-12 education is a huge challenge.

The Kalamazoo Promise is an exception to this general pattern for later interventions. The program is simple: graduate from high school and get into a college, and you get a scholarship that pays the tuition. The form required to get the Promise is one page long.

Third, I think the Promise points out one of the virtues of universal programs: simplicity. The Promise would be much more complicated to implement if eligibility depended on family income, student performance in high school, etc. And a more complicated program would be more difficult to explain to parents and students, which makes it less likely to affect attitudes and behavior.

Targeted programs are more complicated to administer, and hence more costly. They are harder to explain to those who are eligible, which restricts participation. Targeting also imposes an implicit tax on earnings, which may discourage labor force participation.

Having said that, targeting is obviously justified if the benefits are demonstrably greater for the targeted group, and if we can organize the targeting so that it is as simple to administer as possible, and so that it minimizes the implicit tax on earnings.  But I think the administrative issues with targeting should not be under-emphasized. Any discussion of universality versus targeted programs in early childhood education needs to consider these practical implementation issues.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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