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Does Starting Universal Childcare Earlier Influence Children’s Skill Development?

  • Daniel KuehnleEmail author
  • Michael Oberfichtner


As many developed countries enact policies that allow children to begin universal childcare earlier, understanding how starting universal childcare earlier affects children’s cognitive and noncognitive skills is an important policy question. We provide comprehensive evidence on the multidimensional short- and longer-run effects of starting universal childcare earlier using a fuzzy discontinuity in the age at starting childcare in Germany. Combining rich survey and administrative data, we follow one cohort from age 6 to 15 and examine standardized cognitive test scores, noncognitive skill measures, and school track choice in a unified framework. Children who start universal childcare four months earlier around age 3 do not perform differently in terms of standardized cognitive test scores, measures of noncognitive skills, school track choice, or school entrance examinations. We also find no evidence of skill improvements for children with low socioeconomic status, although we provide suggestive evidence that they may benefit from high-quality care. Our estimates refer to children who start childcare before they become legally entitled, for whom the literature would predict low gains to starting childcare earlier. We provide further evidence on this relationship between parental resistance to and children’s potential gains from childcare. Simply allowing children to start universal childcare earlier is hence not sufficient to improve children’s skill development, particularly for children with low socioeconomic status.


Universal childcare Child development Skill formation Cognitive skills Noncognitive skills 



We are grateful for helpful comments and suggestions received from four referees; Anna Adamecz-Völgyi, Stefan Bauernschuster, Jan Bietenbeck, Christian Dustmann, David Figlio, Jonathan Guryon, James J. Heckman, Mathias Huebener, Chris Karbownik, Patrick Puhani, Regina T. Riphahn, Claus Schnabel, Stefanie Schurer, Steven Stillman, Konstantinos Tatsiramos, and Rudolph Winter-Ebmer; from participants at the 2015 summer school of the DFG Priority Program 1764, the 2016 Ce2 workshop in Warsaw, the 2016 NEPS User Conference, the 1st IZA workshop on Gender and Family Economics, the 3rd network workshop of the DFG Priority Program 1764, the 2017 Essen Health and Labour Conference, the 2017 annual meeting of the Society of Labor Economics, and the 2017 annual meeting of the European Society of Population Economics; and seminar participants at the Northwestern Applied Micro Reading Group, Bayreuth University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, Lüneburg University, and RWI (Essen). This paper uses data from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS): Starting Cohort 4–9th Grade, doi: From 2008 to 2013, NEPS data were collected as part of the Framework Programme for the Promotion of Empirical Educational Research funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). As of 2014, the NEPS survey is carried out by the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories (LIfBi) at the University of Bamberg in cooperation with a nationwide network. We thank the Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Science and Equality of Schleswig Holstein, and Ute Thyen and Sabine Brehm specifically, for granting access to and providing valuable information on the school entrance examinations. Daniel Kuehnle acknowledges financial support by the DFG (grant number RI 856/7-1).

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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universität Duisburg-EssenEssenGermany
  2. 2.IZA Institute of Labor EconomicsBonnGermany
  3. 3.Institute for Employment Research (IAB)NurembergGermany

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