DataBank Indicator

Early Childhood Program Enrollment

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The proportion of three- to six-year-old children (not yet in kindergarten) who attended center-based early childhood care and education programs increased from 55 to 61 percent between 2007 and 2012. Gains were particularly high for Hispanic children.


Participation in high-quality early childhood care and education programs can have positive effects on children’s cognitive, language, and social development, particularly among children at risk for poor outcomes.[1]
Sometimes these effects fade in the early school years, but the impacts of some programs have continued into later school years and adulthood.[2],[3]
In an international study involving 15-year-olds from 14 developed countries, students who had attended a year or more of pre-primary education scored an average of 33 points higher on a comprehensive reading assessment, even after accounting for the fact that those attending such programs tend to come from relatively more advantaged backgrounds.[4]

Quality is an important element of programs that have had strong impacts. High-quality programs do not just meet the basic needs of children, but also provide opportunities for meaningful learning activities and language development, and work to foster close, caring relationships between children and their teachers/caregivers.[5]

While this indicator does not provide information on aspects of program quality, it describes the percentage of three- to six-year-old children (not yet enrolled in kindergarten) in early childhood care and education programs. Such programs include early learning centers, Head Start programs, and preschools.


The share of three- to six-year-olds (not yet in kindergarten) in early childhood care and education programs remained relatively constant between 1995 and 2007, ranging from 55 percent in 1995 to 57 percent in 2005; in 2007 it was 55 percent. However, in 2012 the proportion had increased to 61 percent of children. Increases are apparent for all race/Hispanic origins and across the socio-economic spectrum. (Appendix 1)

Differences by Poverty Status

Children in poor families (with incomes below the federal poverty line) and those in low-income families (with incomes between the poverty line and twice the poverty line) are less likely than children in more affluent families to be in center-based programs. In 2012, 46 percent of three- to six-year-olds in poor families, and 52 percent in low-income families, were in such programs, compared with 72 percent of children in families with higher incomes. (Appendix 1)

Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin[6]

08_fig1Hispanic children are less likely than white or black children to be in center-based programs. In 2012, 52 percent of Hispanic three- to six-year-olds attended such programs, compared with 63 percent of white children, 65 percent of black children, and 64 percent of Asian children. The rate among Hispanic children increased by one-third between 2007 and 2012, from 39 to 52 percent. (Figure 1)


Differences by Mother’s Highest Level of

08_fig2Mothers with higher levels of education are more likely to enroll their children in early care and education programs than are mothers with less education.   In 2012, 43 percent of three- to six-year-olds whose mothers had not completed high school participated in such programs, compared with 50 percent whose mothers were high school graduates, 58 percent whose mothers had at least some vocational/technical training or college, and 79 percent whose mothers were college graduates. (Figure 2)

Differences by Mother’s Employment Status

08_fig3In 2012, children three to six years old with working mothers were more likely than their peers whose mothers did not work to attend early childhood care and education programs, although the gap decreased between 2007 and 2012. Sixty-seven percent of children whose mother worked full-time or part-time were in center-based care, compared with 59 percent who had mothers looking for work, and 52 percent whose mothers were not in the labor force. However, the proportion of children with mothers who were looking for work who were in center-based care increased 21 percentage points between 2007 and 2012, while the rate among employed mothers remained relatively constant. (Figure 3).

Differences by Region

08_fig4In 2012, children living in the Northeast were significantly more likely than those living in the West to be in center-based care, at 70 and 53 percent, respectively. Those in the South and Midwest fell in the middle, at 64 and 59 percent, respectively(Figure 4)




Differences by Family Type

Children living with two unmarried parents are less likely than their peers in other family types to be enrolled in center-based care. In 2012, 48 percent of three- to six-year-olds not yet in kindergarten who lived with two unmarried parents were in center-based care, compared with 58 percent of those living with one parent, 62 percent of children living with two married parents, and 65 percent living with no parents. (Appendix 1)

State and Local Estimates

For 2005-2012 state estimates of the number of children not enrolled in nursery school, preschool or kindergarten, total and by poverty status see the KIDS COUNT Data Center.

For 2009 state estimates of the number of children enrolled in pre-k in public schools only, see Digest of Education Statistics 2012, Chapter 2, Table 37.

International Estimates

For the percentage of children ages three to four enrolled
in pre-primary and primary education in selected countries for 2008, see the NCES publication Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries: 2011. (Indicator

For the 2008 enrollment of children age 4 and
under in OECD countries, see Key Indicators on Education. (Table C1.1)

National Goals

The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top:
Early Learning Challenge
aims to increase the percentage of disadvantaged
children who are not yet in school who are enrolled in high-quality early
learning programs.

More information is available here.

Related Indicators


Center-based early childhood care and education
programs include day care centers, Head Start programs, nursery schools,
preschools, pre-kindergarten programs, and other early childhood programs.

Data Source

Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. (2014). America’s children: Key national indicators of well-being, 2014, Table Fam3B. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available at:

Raw Data Source

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for
Education Statistics, National Household Education Survey (NHES)


Appendix 1 – Percentage of Children, Ages 3 to 6, in Center-Based Care: Selected Years, 1995-2012

1995 2001 2005 2007 2012
Total 55.0 56.3 57.1 55.3 61.0
Race and Hispanic origin1
White, non-Hispanic 56.9 58.9 59.0 58.4 63.5
Black, non-Hispanic 59.5 63.0 66.5 65.2 68.4
Asian 58.6 61.9 70.4 63.9 68.4
Hispanic 37.2 39.8 43.5 38.9 51.9
Poverty status
Below federal poverty
level (FPL)
45.6 46.6 47.2 40.6 45.6
100-199% of FPL 43.2 48.7 46.5 45.1 51.8
200% of FPL and above 65.8 64.0 66.2 65.3 72.1
Family type
Two parents2 54.8 56.5 56.9 55.4 61.8
Two parents, married 57.3 58.3 56.8 64.1
Two parents, unmarried 46.4 42.8 39.8 47.9
One parent 56.0 55.8 57.7 54.3 58.0
No parents 50.5 55.9 59.6 57.2 65.2
Mother’s highest level of education3
Less than high school 34.8 38.0 34.9 28.7 42.7
High school diploma or
47.6 47.3 48.6 43.1 49.8
Some college, including
vocational/technical/associate’s degree
56.8 61.4 56.2 54.4 58.2
Bachelor’s degree or
74.5 70.0 72.9 71.3 79.4
Mother’s employment status3
35 hours or more per week 60.2 62.9 63.7 65.4 67.3
Less than 35 hours per week 62.1 61.4 60.8 61.7 66.7
Looking for work 51.8 46.2 42.0 37.8 58.6
Not in the labor force 46.5 46.9 50.2 43.9 51.7
Northeast 56.3 63.8 67.0 66.3 69.7
South 58.4 59.1 56.4 55.0 63.9
Midwest 53.8 55.5 54.4 55.8 58.5
West 55.0 56.3 57.1 55.3 53.3
“—“ Not available.1In 1995 and 2001, the 1977 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Standards for Data on Race and Ethnicity were used to classify persons into one of the following four racial groups: White, Black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, or Asian or Pacific Islander. For data from 2005 and 2007, the revised 1997 OMB standards were used. Persons could select one or more of five racial groups: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. Included in the total but not shown separately are American Indian or Alaska Native and respondents with “Two or more races.” For continuity purposes, in 2005 and 2007, respondents who reported the child being Asian or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander were combined. Data on race and Hispanic origin are collected separately. Persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race.

2Refers to adults’ relationship to child and does not indicate marital status. Data for 2007 and 2012 include same-sex parents.

3Children without a mother in the home are excluded from estimates by mother’s highest level of education and mother’s employment status.

4 Regions: Northeast includes CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, and VT. South includes AL, AR, DC, DE, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MS, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA, and WV. Midwest includes IA, IL, IN, KS, MI, MN, MO, ND, NE, OH, SD, and WI. West includes AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA, and WY.

Source: Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. (2014). America’s children: Key national indicators of well-being, 2014, Table Fam3B. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.


[1]National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.
(2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early child
. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood
Development. J. P. Shonkoff & D. A. Phillips, Eds. Board on Children,
Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and
Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

[2]See, for example, Campbell, F. A., Pungello, E. P.,
Miller-Johnson, S., Burchinal, M. & Ramey, C. T. (2001). The development
of cognitive and academic abilities: Growth curves from an early childhood
educational experiment. Developmental Psychology, 37(2), 231-242.

[3]Schweinhart, L., Barnes, H., Weikart, D., &
Epstein, A. (1993). Significant benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study
through age 27. Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation,
(10). Ypsilanti, MI: The High/Scope Press.

[4]Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). (2011). Does
participation in pre-primary education translate into better learning outcomes
at school? PISA In Focus, No. 1. Retrieved from

[5]Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., & Burchinal, M. R.
(1997). Relations between preschool children’s child care experiences and
concurrentdevelopment: The cost,
quality, and outcomes study. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 43(3), 451-477.

[6]Hispanics may be any race. Estimates for whites and blacks in this report do not include Hispanics.


Suggested Citation:

Child Trends Databank. (2014). Early childhood program enrollment. Available at:


Last updated: August 2014


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