As noted in a recent paper, private pre-K is often out of reach for many families. High-quality private pre-K is expensive, with an average annual cost of $8,800, which rivals the cost of tuition at a public university. For a family of four living at the poverty line in 2013 (household income of $23,550 per year), this means that private pre-K for one child is nearly half of total income. Sending two children to private pre-K would leave the family with less than $2,000 for all other expenses for an entire year. The result is clear: higher income families who can afford to send their children to private pre-K often do, while children in lower income and middle class families often can’t attend private pre-K so their children are left out.

We can also put the average cost of private pre-K in the context of annual household spending to make it clearer why many families can’t afford it, as the infographic shows. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics releases average annual expenditure tables using the Consumer Expenditure Survey. Using this we can compare what households in each income quintile spend on typical expenses, such as housing, food, and healthcare, with the average cost of private pre-K. Households with income in the lowest 20 percent (income of $20,262 or less) spend the largest share of their income on housing ($8,771). But if a family in this quintile sent one child to private pre-K at the average cost, it would be the family’s largest expense. As a result, only 7 percent of 4-year-olds in this income quintile are enrolled in private pre-K.[1]

Private pre-K is also hard to afford for middle class families, resulting in only 21 percent of 4-year-olds in this quintile are enrolled in a private pre-K program. This is partly because the average cost of high-quality private pre-K would be the second largest expense for a family in the middle quintile (income between $38,521 and $62.434). Comparatively, the average cost of sending one child to private high quality pre-K would be the fourth largest expenditure for families with income from $101,583 and up. This is much more manageable for higher income families, so it’s no surprise 60 percent of 4-year-olds in this quintile are enrolled in private pre-K.[2]

The high cost of high quality private pre-K is prohibitive for many working and middle class families. While higher income families can and often do send their children to private pre-K, working and middle class family budgets are already strained and many families simply cannot afford to send their children to private pre-K.[3] As the paper notes, there is often not enough high-quality publicly funded pre-K for all the children who can’t go to private pre-K, so many children are left out altogether. Increasing the supply of publicly funded pre-K would help alleviate the financial burden of pre-K for many families.


[1.] Barnett, W.S. & Nores, M. (2012). Estimated Participation and Hours in Early Care and Education by Type of Arrangement and Income at Ages 2 to 4 in 2010. New Brunswick, NJ: NIEER.
[2.] Ibid.
[3.] Ibid.