The answer to whether you have access to free preschool really depends on where you live and whether you qualify
When your kid approaches age 3 or 4, you may consider sending them to preschool. It probably seems like the natural way to have them enter the education system and transition to kindergarten, but it’s not that simple—and one looming question on parents’ minds is this: “Is preschool free?”
Short answer: No, preschool isn’t free.
Long answer: Preschool can be free, but not everywhere in the United States.
“The cost of preschool varies dramatically across the country, but the average tuition costs approximately $10,000 per academic year,” says Amanda Vierheller, co-founder and COO of Playgarden. “Cost is one of the most prohibitive factors in families committing to preschool.”
Although costly, parents might view this as an investment in their child’s future as research shows that preschool benefits kids socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively. However, since not every family has the means to send their kid to preschool, it’s become a hot-button topic in many states.
With that said, we understand that navigating the world of preschool for your child can be difficult and we’re here to help. To make the process easier, we spoke with education experts and families about their experiences with preschool and whether free preschool might be a possibility now or in the future.
When do kids start preschool?
Preschoolers are between the ages of 3 and 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but children typically start preschool between 3 and 4. By chatting with local preschools, parents can determine what each school’s expectations are for readiness (e.g., potty training) and evaluate whether their kid fits the bill.
What are the benefits of preschool?
One of the reasons many parents consider sending their children to preschool is because of the advantages they’ll receive ahead of kindergarten.
“Preschool introduces children to routine, rules, independence, socialization, early learning, and foundational skills that they use both in school and at home,” says Vierheller. “Students who attend preschool have opportunities to promote social and emotional development with peers and teachers.”
Aside from gaining independence and developing their social skills, preschool also helps to prepare kids for kindergarten. “Not only do kids learn the foundational skills needed to master elementary school topics, but they also learn how to be in school,” says Cara Delzer, head of community at Outschool. “They get to practice self-control, asking for help, and learn how to navigate a structured setting.”
Most importantly, children develop essential skills like language and communication by playing, learning, and interacting with others. “Students also build fine motor and gross motor skills with the daily practice that comes with school activities,” Vierheller adds.
How much does preschool cost in the US?
As mentioned above, Delzer says a traditional preschool usually starts around $1200 a month or $10,000 per year, but this may vary depending on the location, number of children attending, and the type of preschool chosen.
Jaime Maser Berman, a publicist and mother of four, has three of her children currently enrolled in preschool in Westfield, NJ. For the 2022-2023 school year, her kids’ tuition cost the family roughly $6,000 per month.
“Preschool is definitely not free; in fact, we joke we’re constantly hemorrhaging money. Such is life as a parent,” says Maser Berman.
A program to help cover the cost of preschool
While tuition concerns are a real problem for many families, Delzer says there is a government program that’s in place to help.
The most well-known free preschool option is Head Start, which is available in some form in every state for children aged 3 to 5. (Sister program Early Head Start is an option for families with kids under 3.)
“Every state has requirements to qualify for Head Start, such as income limits,” says Delzer. “Many school districts provide free preschool with some restrictions, such as limiting it to certain age groups, only being available for part of the day, or only being available 3 days a week.”
Does your state have free preschool?
Nearly all states have free preschool available through Head Start, as long as families meet the eligibility requirements.
Some states offer free pre-K for students who are 4 years old. “Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Vermont, and Washington D.C currently offer universal pre-K programs for all children, although some are based on lottery acceptance as spaces are limited,” says Vierheller.
She adds that other states have universal pre-K policies in place for at-risk children, and some are working towards the benchmark of offering state-wide pre-K in the future. For example, California is on track to have free high-quality pre-K for all 4-year-olds by 2025.
If you’re looking for local preschool options, the Child Care Aware hotline (1-800-424-2246) is an available resource. They provide contact information for local childcare resources and referral agencies, which can provide a list of licensed preschools in your area.