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Equitable Access to High-Quality Early Learning Programs DomainEquitable Access to High-Quality Early Learning Programs Domain

Disparities in Access to and Participation in High-Quality Early Learning Programs

Last Updated: August 2023 | Suggested Citation

Child Care and Early Childhood Programs

Child care arrangements are influential in children’s early education; children often learn skills in child care settings that not only are important for kindergarten entry but also can have a lasting impact on their development into adulthood.7, 8 In 2016, about 60 percent of the 21.4 million children under 6 years old who were not yet enrolled in kindergarten were in some type of nonparental care arrangement on a regular basis.9 This indicator uses data from the Early Childhood Program Participation (ECPP) Survey, which is part of the National Household Education Surveys (NHES) Program, to explore the availability of pre-K programs by highlighting children’s parents’ reports of (1) whether there are good choices10 for Child Care and Early Childhood Programs (also referred to as “child care” in this indicator) where they live; (2) how much difficulty they have finding the type of child care they want for their children; (3) what the primary reason is for difficulty finding child care; and (4) what the average out-of-pocket costs are for child care arrangements. Findings are reported by age of child, race/ethnicity, household income, and locale (urban, suburban, town, or rural).

Choices for Child Care and Early Childhood Programs

In 2016, some 57 percent of children under 6 years old11 had parents12 who reported that they felt there were good choices for child care where they lived. About 17 percent of children had parents who did not feel there were good choices, and the remaining 26 percent did not know whether there were good choices where they lived. There were some measurable differences in the percentage of such children by the educational equity dimensions examined.

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  • In 2016, the percentage of children whose parents felt there were good choices for child care was highest for children 3 to 5 years old (65 percent), next highest for children 1 to 2 years old (54 percent), and lowest for children under 1 year old (48 percent).
  • The percentage of children whose parents did not know whether there were good choices for child care was highest for children under 1 year old (36 percent), followed by those who were 1 to 2 years old (29 percent), and was lowest for children 3 to 5 years old (18 percent).

The percentages of children under age 6 whose parents felt there were good choices for child care were higher for White children (63 percent), children of Two or more races (59 percent), and Black children (59 percent) than for Asian (49 percent) and Hispanic children (46 percent).

In 2016, the percentage of children under 6 years old whose parents reported that they felt there were good choices for child care was highest in households with incomes of over $100,000.

  • Sixty-nine percent of children in households with incomes of over $100,000 had parents who felt there were good choices for child care, compared with 59 percent for children in households with incomes of $75,001 to $100,000, 56 percent for children in households with incomes of $20,000 or less, 52 percent for children in households with incomes of $50,001 to $75,000, and 48 percent for children in households with incomes of $20,001 to $50,000.
  • The percentage of children whose parents felt there were good choices for child care was higher for children in households with incomes of $75,001 to $100,000 than for children in households with incomes of $20,001 to $50,000 and incomes of $50,001 to $75,000.
  • The percentage of children whose parents felt there were good choices for child care was higher for children in households with incomes of $20,000 or less than for children in households with incomes of $20,001 to $50,000.

The percentage of children under 6 years old whose parents felt there were good choices for child care was higher for children living in towns (61 percent) and suburban areas (60 percent) than for children in cities (54 percent) in 2016. In addition, the percentage of children whose parents felt there were good choices for child care was higher for children living in suburban areas than in rural areas (54 percent).

Figure 1. Percentage distribution of children by whether their parents/guardians felt there were good choices for Child Care and Early Childhood Programs where they live, by selected child and family characteristics: 2016 

Figure 1. Percentage distribution of children by whether their parents/guardians felt there were good choices for Child Care and Early Childhood Programs where they live, by selected child and family characteristics: 2016

1 Reporting standards for Pacific Islanders and American Indians/Alaska Natives were not met; therefore, data for these groups are not shown in the figure. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. 

NOTE: Data represent children who were under 6 years old and were not yet in kindergarten. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. 

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Program Participation Survey of the National Household Education Surveys Program (ECPP-NHES:2016). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 202.30b. 

Difficulty Finding Child Care and Early Childhood Programs

Of children whose parents reported that they tried to find child care for them, 49 percent had parents who had “no difficulty” finding the type of care they wanted in 2016. Some 16 percent of children had parents who had “a little difficulty” finding the type of care they wanted, and 17 percent had parents who had “some difficulty” finding the type of care they wanted. The percentage of children whose parents reported having “a lot of difficulty” finding the type of care they wanted in 2016 (11 percent) was not measurably different from the corresponding percentage in 2012. The percentage of children whose parents “did not find the type of care they wanted” in 2016 (7 percent) was higher than the corresponding percentage in 2012 (5 percent).

For children whose parents reported that they tried to find child care for their children, 55 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds had parents who had no difficulty finding the care they wanted. This percentage was higher than the corresponding percentages for children 1 to 2 years old (45 percent) and for those under 1 year old (42 percent).

A higher percentage of White children (53 percent) had parents who had no difficulty finding the type of care they wanted, compared with the percentages of Asian children (43 percent) and children of Two or more races (41 percent).

No measurable differences by household income were observed in the percentages of children whose parents reported no difficulty finding the type of care they wanted.

No measurable differences by locale were observed in the percentages of children whose parents reported no difficulty finding the type of care they wanted.

Figure 2. Percentage distribution of children by their parents/guardians’ reported level of difficulty finding the type of child care or early childhood program they wanted, by selected child and family characteristics: 2016 

Figure 2. Percentage distribution of children by their parents/guardians’ reported level of difficulty finding the type of child care or early childhood program they wanted, by selected child and family characteristics: 2016

! Interpret data with caution. The coefficient of variation (CV) for this estimate is between 30 and 50 percent. 

1 Reporting standards for Pacific Islanders and American Indians/Alaska Natives were not met; therefore, data for these groups are not shown in the figure. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. 

NOTE: Data represent children who were under 6 years old and were not yet in kindergarten. Data exclude children whose parents/guardians did not try to find care. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. 

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Program Participation Survey of the National Household Education Surveys Program (ECPP-NHES:2016). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 202.30b. 

Reasons for Difficulty Finding Child Care and Early Childhood Programs

Among children whose parents reported difficulty finding child care in 2016, some 32 percent had parents who cited cost as the primary reason. Lower percentages of children had parents who cited the following as their primary reason for difficulty finding child care: lack of open slots for new children (27 percent), quality (22 percent), and location (9 percent).13 In addition, 2 percent of children had parents who reported that needing a program for children with special needs was the primary reason for difficulty finding care, and 7 percent had parents who reported other reasons.14

Among children whose parents reported difficulty finding child care in 2016, the percentage whose parents reported a lack of open slots for new children or location as the primary reason for the difficulty varied by children’s age.

  • A higher percentage of children under 1 year old (36 percent) than children 1 to 2 years old and 3 to 5 years old (25 percent each) had parents who reported that a lack of open slots was the primary reason for the difficulty finding care.
  • The percentage of children whose parents reported that location was the primary reason for the difficulty finding care was higher for children 3 to 5 years old (13 percent) than for children under 1 year old and children 1 to 2 years old (6 percent each).
  • Among children whose parents reported difficulty finding child care in 2016, a lower percentage of Asian children (20 percent) than White children (30 percent) had parents who reported a lack of open slots for new children as the primary reason for difficulty finding care.
  • The percentage of children whose parents reported that quality was the primary reason for difficulty finding care was lower for Hispanic children (13 percent) than for Black (21 percent), White (27 percent), and Asian children (29 percent).
  • A lower percentage of children of Two of more races (17 percent) than White and Asian children had parents who reported quality as the primary reason.
  • Among children whose parents reported difficulty finding child care in 2016, the percentage of children whose parents reported cost as the primary reason for difficulty finding care was lower for children in households with incomes over $100,000 (24 percent) than for children with household incomes of $50,001 to $75,000 (35 percent), $75,001 to $100,000 (35 percent), and $20,001 to $50,000 (40 percent).
  • The percentage of children whose parents reported a lack of open slots for new children as the primary reason for the difficulty finding care was higher for children in households with incomes over $100,000 (35 percent) than for children in households with lower income levels (ranging from 21 to 25 percent).
  • The percentage of children whose parents reported that location was the primary reason for the difficulty finding child care was higher for children in households with incomes of $20,000 or less (18 percent) than for children in households with incomes of $20,001 to $50,000 (8 percent), $75,000 to $100,000 (6 percent), and over $100,000 (6 percent).
  • In 2016, a higher percentage of children in suburban areas (35 percent) than in rural areas (26 percent) had parents who cited cost as the primary reason for the difficulty finding care.
  • A higher percentage of children in cities (31 percent) than in suburban areas (24 percent) had parents who cited a lack of open slots for new children as the primary reason for difficulty.
  • Quality was more commonly cited as the primary reason for difficulty finding care among the parents of children in suburban areas (24 percent) than of those in rural areas (16 percent).
  • Location was more commonly cited as the primary reason for difficulty for parents of children in rural areas (18 percent) than for parents of children in towns (10 percent), suburban areas (9 percent), and cities (6 percent).

Figure 3. Percentage distribution of children by their parents/guardians’ primary reason for difficulty finding child care or an early childhood program, by selected child and family characteristics: 2016 

Figure 3. Percentage distribution of children by their parents/guardians’ primary reason for difficulty finding child care and an early childhood program, by selected child and family characteristics: 2016

! Interpret data with caution. The coefficient of variation (CV) for this estimate is between 30 and 50 percent. 

1 Reporting standards for Pacific Islanders and American Indians/Alaska Natives were not met; therefore, data for these groups are not shown in the figure. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity.

NOTE: Data represent children who were under 6 years old and were not yet in kindergarten. Estimates exclude children whose parent/guardian reported either “have not tried to find care” or “no difficulty” finding the type of child care or early childhood program wanted. In addition, estimates also excluded nine cases whose parent/guardian reported “not applicable, did not look for care” in the open-ended response of “some other reason.” Categories not shown in the figure have been suppressed because reporting standards were not met; either there are too few cases for a reliable estimate or the coefficient of variation (CV) is 50 percent or greater. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding and suppressed data. 

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Early Childhood Program Participation Survey of the National Household Education Surveys Program (ECPP-NHES:2016). See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 202.30a. 

Enrollment Rates of 3- to 5-year-olds

Research has shown that children’s lifelong well-being is positively associated with early childhood services, including formal schooling such as preschool and kindergarten; this relationship is especially noteworthy among children at greater risk of poor outcomes for lifelong well-being.15 Formal schooling, such as kindergarten and preschool programs, is an important component of early childhood education. This indicator looks at the school enrollment rates of 3- to 5-year-olds using the 2021 data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), October Supplement.16 This indicator also compares enrollment rates by various child and family characteristics within the 3- to 4-year-old and 5-year-old age groups.

  • In October 2021, about 63 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds were enrolled in school overall. The enrollment rate was higher for 5-year-olds than for 3- to 4-year-olds (86 vs. 50 percent).17 For both age groups, enrollment rates were lower than they had been in October 2019, prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • For both age groups, enrollment rates in October 2019 were not measurably different from those in October 2010.18
  • Between October 2019 and October 2020, enrollment rates decreased for both age groups: the rate for 5-year-olds fell 6 percentage points (from 91 to 84 percent), while the rate for 3- to 4-year-olds fell 13 percentage points (from 54 to 40 percent).19
  • Between October 2020 and October 2021, the enrollment rate increased for 3- to 4-year-olds only, by 10 percentage points (from 40 to 50 percent).
  • For both age groups, enrollment rates in October 2021 remained lower than in October 2019, despite the 10-percentage-point recovery from October 2020 to October 2021 for 3- to 4-year-olds.

The findings below are reported by sex, race/ethnicity, parents’ highest level of educational attainment, family income, mother’s employment status, household type and parents’ employment status.

In October 2021, enrollment rates did not measurably differ by sex for either 3- to 4-year-olds or 5-year-olds.

In October 2021, for both 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds, enrollment rates were lower for Hispanic children than for their peers of some other racial/ethnic groups.20 Specifically, enrollment rates in October 2021 were

  • lower for Hispanic 3- to 4-year-olds (42 percent) than for those who were White (55 percent) or Asian (59 percent); and
  • lower for Hispanic 5-year-olds (82 percent) than for those who were Black (90 percent), Asian (92 percent), or of Two or more races (97 percent).

The enrollment rate was also lower for White 5-year-olds (86 percent) than for those of Two or more races. There were no other measurable differences by race/ethnicity in the school enrollment rates of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds.

Figure 4. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by race/ethnicity: October 2021

Figure 4. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by race/ethnicity: October 2021

‡ Reporting standards not met. Either there are too few cases for a reliable estimate or the coefficient of variation (CV) is 50 percent or greater.

NOTE: Data exclude children living in institutions (e.g., prisons or nursing facilities). Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October, 2021. See Digest of Education Statistics 2022, table 202.20.

There were some measurable differences by parental educational attainment21 in the enrollment rates of young children in October 2021.  

  • For 3- to 4-year-olds, the enrollment rate was higher for those whose parents had a bachelor’s or higher degree (57 percent) than for those whose parents had any level of attainment below an associate’s degree (ranging from 37 to 48 percent).
  • Although enrollment rates had been higher for 3- to 4-year-olds whose parents had a bachelor’s or higher degree than for those whose parents had an associate’s degree in every year from October 2010 to October 2019, there was no measurable difference between these groups in October 2020 or October 2021.
  • For 5-year-olds, in October 2021 the enrollment rate was higher for those whose parents had a bachelor’s or higher degree than for those whose parents had less than a high school credential (90 vs. 77 percent).

Figure 5. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by parents’ highest level of educational attainment: October 2021  

Figure 5. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by parents’ highest level of educational attainment: October 2021

1 Includes parents who completed high school through equivalency programs, such as a GED program. NOTE: Data exclude children living in institutions (e.g., prisons or nursing facilities). This figure includes only children who resided with at least one of their parents (including an adoptive or stepparent; excluding a foster parent). Parents' educational attainment refers to the highest education level of any parent residing with the child. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October, 2021. See Digest of Education Statistics 2022, table 202.20.

There were some measurable differences in enrollment rates of young children by family income in October 2021.

  • Among 3- to 4-year-olds, the enrollment rate was higher for children in households with an annual family income exceeding $100,000 (59 percent) than for those in households that earned less than $10,000 (36 percent), $20,000 to $29,999 (41 percent), $30,000 to $39,999 (44 percent), $50,000 to $74,999 (47 percent), and $75,000 to $99,999 (49 percent).
  • Among 5-year-olds, there were no measurable differences in enrollment rates by family income.

Figure 6. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by family income: October 2021 

Figure 6. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by family income: October 2021

NOTE: Data exclude children living in institutions (e.g., prisons or nursing facilities). Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October, 2021. See Digest of Education Statistics 2022, table 202.20.

In October 2021, the enrollment rate was higher for 3- to 4-year-olds whose mothers were employed than for their peers whose mothers were not employed (55 vs. 43 percent). There was no measurable difference by mother’s employment status in the school enrollment rates of 5-year-olds. For either age group, there were no measurable differences in enrollment rates by number of parents living with the child.

Figure 7. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by mother’s employment status: October 2021  

Figure 7. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by mother’s employment status: October 2021

NOTE: Data exclude children living in institutions (e.g., prisons or nursing facilities). Mother includes a biological, adoptive, or stepmother and excludes a foster mother. Children living with foster mothers are included in the “Not applicable (no mother in household)” category. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October, 2021. See Digest of Education Statistics 2022, table 202.20.

  • In 2020, the enrollment rate for 3- to 4-year-olds in two-parent households was not measurably different from the corresponding rate for those in single-parent households (40 vs. 41 percent).
  • For 5-year-olds, by comparison, the enrollment rate was lower for those in two-parent households than for those in single-parent households (83 vs. 90 percent).

Considering the enrollment rates of children with similar family structures more closely, enrollment rates differed by parents’ employment status.

  • For 3- to 4-year-olds in two-parent households, the rate was higher when both parents were employed (45 percent) than when only one parent was employed (35 percent) or when neither parent was employed (26 percent).
  • The enrollment rate for 5-year-olds in two-parent households was 88 percent for those with both parents employed, compared with 79 percent for those with only one parent employed and 66 percent for those with neither parent employed.

Figure 8. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by household type and parents’ employment status: 2020  

Figure 8. Percentage of 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds enrolled in school, by household type and parents’ employment status: 2020

1 Children in two-parent households resided with two parents, while those in single-parent households resided with only one parent.

NOTE: Data exclude children living in institutions. This figure includes only children who resided with at least one of their parents (including an adoptive or stepparent).

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October, 2020. Digest of Education Statistics 2022, table 202.20.

Findings in this indicator come from Early Childhood Care Arrangements: Choices and Costs and Enrollment Rates of Young Children in the Condition of Education. For more data on the extent of differences in early childhood care arrangements by race/ethnicity of child and poverty status of household, mother’s employment status, mother’s highest level of education, and poverty status of household, see Digest table 202.30, 202.30a, and 202.30b in the Digest of Education Statistics 2017. See also tables 202.20 from Digest of Education Statistics 2021 and tables 202.20 from Digest of Education Statistics 2022.

7 Flanagan, K.D., and McPhee, C. (2009). The Children Born in 2001 at Kindergarten Entry: First Findings From the Kindergarten Data Collections of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) (NCES 2010-005). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved May 1, 2018, from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2010005.

8 Heckman, J.J., Moon, S.H., Pinto, R., Savelyev, P.A., and Yavitz, A. (2010). The Rate of Return to the High Scope Perry Preschool Program. Journal of Public Economics, 94(1): 114–128. Retrieved February 16, 2018, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047272709001418.

9 Nonparental care arrangement refers to any kind of child care or early education, including being cared for by a relative, by a nanny, in a family child care home, and at a child care center or preschool. In 2016, about 29 percent of children under 6 years old who were not enrolled in kindergarten or a higher grade regularly received center-based care as their primary arrangement.

10 Assessments of the quality of early childhood programs are not typically conducted at the national level because of the limitations of respondent knowledge in the household surveys that are used to gather information on early childhood program participation.

11 In the remainder of the indicator, references to “children under 6 years old” exclude children who are already enrolled in kindergarten or above.

12 In this indicator, “parents” refers to parents or guardians.

13 Within this domain, “location” refers to location of the home.

14 Due to unstable estimates or unmet reporting standards, the primary reasons of “needing a program for children with special needs” and “some other reason” are not discussed across the selected child and family characteristics.

15 Cannon, J.S., Kilburn, M.R., Karoly, L.A., Mattox, T., Muchow, A.N., and Buenaventura, M. (2017). Investing Early: Taking Stock of Outcomes and Economic Returns From Early Childhood Programs. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved December 8, 2020, from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1993.html.

16 Children enrolled in pre-K are those whose parents indicated the child was attending or enrolled in a public or private school and the child’s grade was “Nursery (pre-school, prekindergarten).”

17 As of 2020, there were 47 states—plus the District of Columbia— that required that free education be offered by age 5; however, schooling was only compulsory for 5-year-olds in 11 states and the District of Columbia (see 50-State Comparison: Free and Compulsory School Age Requirements)

18 For historical data on enrollment rates for 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds (i.e., data prior to 2010), see Digest of Education Statistics 2019, table 202.10.

19 Enrollment drops during the coronavirus pandemic were also observed in data from other NCES surveys (see indicators Public School Enrollment and Racial/Ethnic Enrollment in Public Schools).

20 For both 3- to 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds, the October 2021 enrollment rates for American Indian/Alaska Native and Pacific Islander children did not meet reporting standards and were thus excluded from the analyses.

21 Refers to the highest level of education attained by any parent residing with the child.

Suggested Citation

National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). Disparities in Access to and Participation in High-Quality Early Learning Programs. Equity in Education Dashboard. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved [date], from [URL].