Universal Pre-K: What is it and Why Does it Affect Me?

“Education has to start at the earliest possible age. Studies say the earlier a child starts learning, the better he or she does down the road, but we are not doing enough to give all of our kids that change. Fewer than three in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”

- President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address.

The recent statements President Obama made in favor of universal access to preschool were bold, poignant and timely. They tugged at our heartstrings and were written to inspire us to get up and do something for the children of today and generations of the future.

But many people fail to understand or become confused by the complexities of the initiative and what it really means. So let’s look at the facts and answer this question: What exactly is universal pre-kindergarten (pre-K)?

Universal Pre-K is a movement within the American education system to make access to preschool education available to all families, similar to the way kindergarten is available to all 5- and 6-year-olds. Like kindergarten, the pre-K idea is to provide voluntary education programs that include homeschooling and alternative education.

The term universal pre-K means that these programs are available for any child in any state, regardless of the child’s abilities and family income, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

How is pre-K different from what is already in place for early childhood education (ECE)?

uprek-eceOne of the biggest differences between pre-K and ECE is that pre-K makes preschool available to all children within the preschool age bracket – typically 3- and 4-year-olds. ECE, on the other hand, refers to the overarching umbrella of education that includes children from birth through 8-years old.

As of 2012, only four percent of 3-year-olds in the U.S. were enrolled in a state-run or head start pre-K program. This is in large part due to the additional cost of sending children to preschool programs. The average cost for a 4-year-old in full-time child care is almost $12,000, according to Child Care Aware of America.

Making publicly-funded pre-K programs available to all children would also allow thousands of mothers to join the workforce. This means a universal pre-K program could potentially help families spend less on education and also add a second income to the family.

But financial stability isn’t the only benefit of universal pre-K.

Researchers agree that brain development in children in the years leading up to kindergarten lays the foundation for their future success. Pre-K programs promote age appropriate educational experiences for children, including the development of language, early literacy skills, and cognitive, physical and social skills.

Ultimately, the benefits of pre-K programs  follow students beyond their school years and into adult life.

Why should college students care?

Currently, 38 out of 50 states (and the District of Columbia) offer some type of universal pre-K program, according to the State of Preschool Yearbook. Therefore, education students need to understand the intricacies of these programs and what they mean for state licensure and potential career opportunities.

“Our graduates [of Rasmussen College] are qualified to teach pre-K, however, individual states have their own requirements,” says Cecilia Westby, dean of the School of Education at Rasmussen College. “Some states may require only state-licensed teachers to teach in pre-K. So students must identify the requirements to teach in a pre-K program in their state.”

In addition, students looking to teach pre-K are generally required to hold a Bachelor’s degree in education as well as an early childhood education certification.

The takeaway

It’s clear that universal pre-K is a hot topic and will continue to be so in the future. Because it’s a relatively new initiative, things like state licensure, job opportunities and education requirements are fluid. So it’s a good idea to stay on top of any new developments.

If you’re interested in early childhood education in general, check out these compelling reasons why you should earn a Bachelor’s degree in ECE.

Finally, if you’re looking for ways to make a positive change for your future by earning a degree, take a look at our 2013 Education Career Outlook Guide.

Kendall Bird

Kendall is a Social Media Strategist at Collegis Education who is focused on bringing awareness and engagement to Rasmussen College's social media properties. She is passionate about helping others, the power of education and building strategies that put the needs of students first. 

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