The price of preschool can cause a bit of sticker shock for some parents.
“What we paid for one month of preschool was about what an entire year of college tuition costs me," said one dad. While both were considerably good deals — about $500 — there is no disputing the rising cost of early childhood education and its affordability.
“It’s a lot of money to spend for kids to play blocks," said the dad. But it’s actually more than blocks. As research shows, early childhood education creates dozens of positive long-term effects. Children who participate in successful preschool programs get higher test scores, are held back less often, and graduate high school at a higher rate than those who do not attend preschool.
As the benefits of preschool receive more attention from policymakers and press, families are trending toward this option instead of childcare.
“It’s like that book 'All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten'. It’s true; the lessons you learn when you are young are really the lessons you learn. You learn how to share, sit still. And playing is how kids learn," said Megan Carolan, a policy research coordinator with the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.
In our town, the state-funded preschools have expanded, and across the U.S., government-funded preschools have doubled in the past 12 years. Some places, such as New York City, have free universal Pre-K, which is a huge boon to parents of four-year-olds.
For preschools that aren’t subsidized, however, the cost of operations is larger than one may expect. Some private preschools have shut down, as increased regulations about compliance with bathroom and sink access as well as mandatory commercial-grade kitchens require costly upgrades. And then there is rent.
“We are subsidized by a church. Market rate would be astronomical," said one preschool director. While she carefully balances the numbers, she tries to keep the child-to-teacher ratio low enough to provide quality care.
“If you’re packing the kids in, you’re losing quality," she said.
Suffice it to say, preschools aren’t trying to soak families. They are justifiably expensive. Preschool teachers usually make less than $30,000 a year.
Preschools cost $4,460 to $13,158 per year ($372 to $1,100 monthly), according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA), in Arlington, Virginia. The group recently published a report on the high cost of childcare in the U.S.
Wealthy parents can often afford preschools. Low-income parents may have government-funded programs or vouchers available to them for options such as Head Start; but middle-class parents are often stuck trying to foot the bill for as much as $18,000 a year.
“Preschools are rarely a bargain," said Carolan.
While there is no universal financial aid for preschool, there are ways to help pay for the costs. Lower-income families can apply for government subsidies through state and federal programs.
“A lot of families are denied, because they might earn too much. If a parent is working full-time at Subway, they are above the threshold to qualify for aid," said one preschool director. “I just tell them to re-apply and put down all of their needs and circumstances."
Many preschools have scholarships, but they are coveted and competitive. Some have advised that families get into a preschool first, and then see if there are scholarship funds available. Often, seemingly exclusive private schools have substantial scholarship funds, so it is worth checking out a broad range of schools.
“Middle-income kids really get the squeeze" said Carolan. She explained that to deal with the financial burden, parents sometimes resort to putting their kids in a half-day program, or only sending them to preschool three days a week.
Cooperative preschools are another option that parents can explore. Families are expected to pitch in for a set number of hours each month. They might help clean, prepare classrooms, monitor kids during class time, or help with administrative tasks. Some parents will also take jobs at a preschool to get an employee discount. One mother of two girls did this and enjoyed it so much that she’s still there, although her girls are now in middle school.
Many preschools also have a sliding tuition scale based on what families earn; and some schools offer a slight reduction for siblings, such as a waiving the registration fee. Preschools have discounts for other circumstances, as well. For example, parents may save some money if they select a specific payment plan, or if they pay the tuition upfront.
Working families should also investigate whether their preschool bills can be covered through a flexible spending account, which is money set aside from paychecks on a pre-tax basis to pay for childcare costs. There are usually conditions to meet, such as working full-time, having a child age 12 or under, and putting only $5,000 annually toward this expense.
Most people think of Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESA), called “education IRAs," as a way to help pay for college or private school, but they can also be used to pay for preschools. Families can invest up to $2,000 tax-free to be used at an accredited school.
The Parents' Financial Statement is a relatively new form that some private schools use to evaluate families' financial positions to see if they qualify for scholarships. Check to see if any of the preschools you are interested in use this form.
Families can also take out educational loans to help cover the cost of tuition. Preschool may be easier to afford this way, particularly if your child goes to a public school after preschool.
Although it may be hard to get your head around the high price of educating your toddler, preschool is a crucial stage in the life of a young person — one that is worth the investment.