Although many American families know how important it is to set their children up for success, education does come at a price. For low-income families or those who live in rural communities, access to high-quality, affordable preschool may be hard to come by. Approximately 45.6% of children below the federal poverty level are enrolled in preschool, but it can be a real hardship for many families, depending on location and specific circumstances. In addition, state funding can be difficult to come by, as policymakers have to weigh the high costs of preschool programs against their efforts to reduce government spending.
So what’s the answer? For some, online preschool could do the trick.
Nationwide, less than one-third of four-year-old children are enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs. Typically, state funding for pre-K and preschool programs can range from $1,700 to $16,400 per student every year, but many programs cost more than $18,000 per student every year. Therefore, the number of students who can benefit from these programs is quite limited. In Mississippi, for example, state-funded pre-K serves only 4% of four-year-olds, meaning that the majority of parents have to pay for preschool programs if their children aren’t able to secure a spot in pre-K. In many rural areas, educational options are scarce, leaving some parents with no other option but to pay more if they want to ensure their child receives a good education. But in a 2017 online survey conducted by Harris Poll for NerdWaller, approximately 32% of Americans say they just make ends meet. Therefore, many lower-income families may not even be able to enroll their children in preschool at all.
Fortunately, there is an alternative that’s caught on in Utah and in other states. Upstart, a home-based online personal learning program, provides a feasible and beneficial option for young students who are limited by location or income. Started by a non-profit organization, Upstart is free of charge for most families. And according to recent data, there’s reason to believe it’s having a positive effect on enrolled students.
The program’s results show that, since Upstart launched, its students have demonstrated significant gains in early literacy, outpacing those students in matched control groups. Upstart students have also continued to outperform their peers on state exams. Also of note, special education students and English learners enrolled in Upstart have shown massive gains compared to their peers not enrolled in the online program. Although the program is relatively low-commitment, requiring just 15 minutes of curriculum activity each day (five days a week), students and caregivers receive initial training and support throughout the program, as well as additional resources and even a computer and internet connectivity if needed.
Over the last eight years, nearly 30,000 Utah students have participated in the program, with around 14,150 participating this school year alone. The program is publicly funded in Utah, but it’s also spread to seven other states through pilot programs. Waterford Institute brought Upstart to programs in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana, Idaho, and Ohio, where 700 early learners are currently enrolled.
Despite its success, some experts are wary of Upstart’s model becoming the norm. Many worry about too much screen time at such a young age, but more importantly, many of the important developmental milestones children reach in preschool aren’t necessarily academically driven. Many of them are social and emotional, which can’t be totally replicated in a solo, online setting. Ideally, technology would be used in conjunction with in-school learning, rather than as an alternative to it.
But for many families, Upstart provides an opportunity their children would not otherwise receive. For those who have limited options for early education, it seems only natural that, in the digital age, the internet would provide a solution.