School programs for children as young as three years have long been seen by many as little more than institutional babysitting. But recent research has offered renewed evidence that structured math and literacy practice in addition to regular parental involvement in school programs during the first eight years of life can have a major impact on a child’s future educational achievement.

Now, a study that included more than 1,500 children in a Chicago-based program called Child-Parent Centers (CPC) shows kids reached a higher level of education by age 35 than did ones enrolled in other preschool programs: CPC participants completed more years of schooling and were more likely to earn a postsecondary degree. The results were reported this month in JAMA Pediatrics.

Previous, smaller research projects have shown structured education programs for young children are beneficial in the short term. The new study is the first to assess a large, publicly funded program and track participants into their 30s, according to the study authors.

Students who started the CPC program in preschool were 47 percent more likely to earn an associate’s degree and 41 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than children who participated in standard preschool programs, the study found. That likelihood increased for students who remained in the program through second or third grade; those children were 48 percent more likely to earn an associate’s degree and 74 percent more likely to earn a master’s degree or higher. The longer students participated in CPC, the stronger the benefit. “This program led to higher educational attainment by just about any way you could measure it,” says Lawrence Schweinhart, an early childhood researcher who was not involved in the study. Schweinhart led one of the first preschool programs that demonstrated the benefits of early learning, the HighScope Perry Preschool Study. “With the societal benefits of increasing educational attainment, reducing crime, and so forth, there’s no way that a city like Chicago can afford not to do these kinds of programs.”

The CPC is a publicly funded program, financed by both federal and state governments. Established in Chicago in 1967, it serves low-income students from preschool to third grade. The city selects students based on their educational needs, on a first-come, first-serve basis. To be eligible a child has to live in a neighborhood that receives Title I federal funds, and must not be enrolled in another preschool program. Parents are required to commit to a few hours of involvement each week.

Students learn in a 17-person class staffed by a teacher and teacher’s aide. The program also has a head teacher, a parent-resource teacher and a school-community representative. The curriculum includes activities that build math and literacy skills to prepare kids for elementary school. Students are taught to recognize numbers and letters, and how to listen and communicate effectively. Activities are conducted individually, in groups, as a class and via field trips. Teachers provide frequent feedback and positive reinforcement, and offer praise when students accomplish tasks.

One of CPC’S key components is family involvement, and parents have to commit to 2.5 hours each week at school or at home. They can choose to volunteer in the classroom, chaperone field trips, get parental training, receive job skills training or attend support groups. Parents also get access to health services and free meals, as well as home visits from an outreach coordinator.

The researchers assessed 989 students in CPCs and compared them with 550 students enrolled in typical preschool programs. They collected data from an organization called the National Student Clearinghouse (which amasses education records from universities across the country), along with self-reported survey data from parents and children.

Reynolds and his team had previously conducted a cost-benefit analysis for CPC, and found a “return on investment to society” of $10.83 per dollar for children who participated through preschool and $8.24 for those who participated through third grade. These numbers were calculated from higher earnings and tax revenue, and figured in reduced spending on the criminal justice system, child welfare and special education. “We need to think about early childhood as school reform. We need a concerted effort across school districts, mayors, principals and community activists to think about how we can align the services we provide, and CPC is a model for doing that,” says study lead author Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.

Researching the CPC into adulthood bolsters support for early education from a policy perspective, too. “The cost of not providing children with these opportunities is the cost I don’t think our society can afford,” says Sharon Ramey, a professor at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s Carilion Research Institute who was not part of the new study. “Every area in our country needs to think about those first eight years.” The CPC is currently run in 24 centers in the city, and a recent grant has allowed the program to expand into other urban areas in Illinois as well as Minnesota and Wisconsin. School districts are prioritizing the program, which is not currently considered to be at risk of being cut under the current presidential administration.

One caveat to the new study’s findings is that the designation of the two groups of students was not perfectly random, because CPC participants were selected by the city. But the two groups are still fairly comparable even though the study is not a randomized controlled trial, says Timothy Bartik, a senior economist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Bartik was not involved in the new study.

Whereas researchers continue to produce mounting evidence for the benefits of early childhood education, the real challenge may lie in how to scale up with larger versions of the program in more cities. “How do we implement these high-quality and highly effective programs at the state and national levels so all children have access regardless of their zip code?” Reynolds says. “That’s what the field is looking at now. It’s challenging and exciting to figure out how you make that possible.”