Skip to page content

Study finds targeted pre-K programs more segregated than universal pre-K programs

Students enrolled in targeted prekindergarten (pre-K) programs for low-income families may experience more racial isolation than students who attend universal pre-K, according to a study out of the University of Georgia.

Targeted, or means-tested, pre-K programs have specific eligibility thresholds based on family income. In some programs, students are eligible to participate if they are homeless, are in foster care, cannot speak or comprehend English, or have a parent in the military.

In contrast, universal pre-K programs have no eligibility criteria except age, state residency and a legal mandate, such as a state law or constitutional provision, to provide access to all families who voluntarily enroll their children.

Racial exposure in pre-K programs

“Means-tested programs are trying to get resources to the people who have the greatest needs, but when they limit interactions across income levels, they can have serious tradeoffs,” said Walker Swain, an associate professor in the Mary Frances Early College of Education’s Department of Lifelong Education, Administration and Policy.

“A progressive tax credit or something like Medicaid operates as just a transfer, whereas means-tested, place-based programs like preschools determine the people you will be around, and if you don’t do it in a way that is designed to be integrated, then it can be segregating—oftentimes with lower quality resources and higher administrative burden.”

Swain, along with doctoral student Shuyang Wang (Ph.D. ’24) and doctoral graduate Joseph-Emery Kouaho (Ph.D. ’23), used longitudinal data from the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data to compare the segregation of pre-K students to the segregation of first-grade students in the same states.

Because first grade is the earliest grade with full participation required by law in all states, researchers used data from this age group as a measure of a community’s underlying racial and ethnic composition.

They then compared the levels of exposure in both pre-K and first-grade programs of one racial or ethnic group to another—focusing specifically on Black-white and Hispanic-white exposure—to determine any significant disparities in access to pre-K programs, as well as what policymakers can focus on to address segregation in education.

“We saw that in universal programs that don’t have economic thresholds, students are more likely to be in a diverse environment,” said Kouaho. “Being around higher-income peers typically means being around more resources and being around more diverse thoughts. It’s also about direct relationships and having peers from different racial backgrounds in the same space.”

Policy implications for educational equity

The study, which was conducted in collaboration with the Urban Institute, highlights pre-K programs and schools in Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Texas and finds that patterns there are consistent with similar programs across the country.

While North Carolina and Texas have robust targeted programs, Oklahoma and Georgia have universal programs.

The study found that both states with universal programs showed pre-K interracial exposure for Black or Hispanic students at or above their first-grade systems, while both states with targeted programs scored below their first-grade systems in every year.

These results indicate that students in universal pre-K programs tend to be less systematically isolated from their peers by race and socioeconomic status, while means-tested pre-K programs that target resources to historically marginalized children may be reinforcing patterns of racial segregation and isolation.

“A lot of studies in K-12 show that the earlier students are exposed to diverse environments, the better, and we can only imagine that the effect will be more pronounced during the pre-K years,” said Wang. “Kids who are educated in a setting where there’s more peers with diverse backgrounds develop higher self-esteem and sense of belonging, and just overall greater education and other social emotional outcomes.”

Past research shows that segregation can affect students’ access to equitable resources and limit the beneficial experiences of diverse schools. To address these issues, state policymakers must continue to work to better integrate new cohorts of preschoolers.

“It’s great to have income-based services available for families who can’t afford access to pre-K learning environments, but we need to consider what else we can do in addition to providing these students with access,” said Kouaho.

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602