What is Universal Pre-K?

Learn more about preschool that is publicly funded in the United States

what is universal pre-k
What is universal pre-k? For some students in the United States, it's a great option for preschool. damircudic/E+/Getty Images

What is universal pre-k? The answer is a little bit complicated as there is more than one definition. Universal pre-k refers to government-funded preschool programs (meaning free to those who attend it), usually by the state. Universal pre-k also refers to the movement by early childhood education experts who want to make preschool available to every child in the United States. 

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), " .

. . universal pre-K means that pre-K programs are available to any child in a given state, regardless of family income, children’s abilities, or other factors." 

Who Offers Universal Pre-K?

Currently, thirty-nine states plus the District of Columbia offer some form of voluntary Universal Pre-K, but not every child is eligible. In order to be considered universal pre-k, the program must be offered to all children, no matter the circumstances. 

Currently, Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma are the only states that offer Universal Pre-K for all 4-year-old children. 

If you are in a state that offers universal pre-k, how do you know it is right for your little one? Just because a universal pre-k program is available, does not mean you have to send your child. 

Is Universal Pre-K Right for My Child?

If you think your child is ready to start preschool and are starting to look at the different programs and offerings available for your little one, it's likely that you have a lot of questions.

And just because your state offers universal pre-k, doesn't mean you have to send your child to it.

Universal Pre-K programs vary from state to state in terms of methodology, availability, eligibility and execution. (Universal Pre-K should not be confused with Head Start, which is a federally-funded program for economically disadvantaged children and families.) Universal pre-k programs also vary from school to school within the same state, although in theory they should follow very similar curriculum.


If you are considering a universal pre-k program for your child, you should approach it like you would any other preschool program. Visit the school both with and without your child to get a feel for the program. Ask plenty of questions of the teachers and administrators. Talk to parents of children who currently are students. What do they like about the program? What would they change? (For more idea, read "Questions to Ask at a Preschool Interview.")

Why is Universal Pre-K Important?

Advocates for Universal Pre-K argue that society has a responsibility to provide high-quality education to all of its youngest members, citing, among other things, higher standardized test scores and an easier social acclimation for those children who attend. They would like to see fully-funded programs available for all students nationwide, regardless of income, similar to the way kindergarten is currently set up. 

In his State of the Union in 2013, President Barack Obama said, "Education has to start at the earliest possible age.

Studies say the earlier a child starts learning, the better he or she does down the road, but we are not doing enough to give all of our kids that change. Fewer than three in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”

Detractors say that there is no link between a child doing well in preschool and succeeding later on and that those parents who want to send their child to preschool should pay for it themselves.

Also Known As: Universal Preschool, Universal Pre-Kindergarten, Universal Prekindergarten

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