Head Start: Better Data and Processes Needed to Monitor Underenrollment  

Created in 1965, Head Start is designed to prepare low-income preschool children for school by providing a comprehensive set of early child development services primarily through community-based organizations. Over the last decade, there have been a number of changes in Head Start's operating environment, including a decrease in the number of poor children; an increase in the number, size, and scope of other federal and state early childhood programs. Program directors and management staff can refer to this report to further their understanding of the factors contributing to underenrollment and how the Regional Offices addressed underenrollment.

Head Start, created in 1965, is designed to prepare low-income preschool children for school by providing a comprehensive set of early child development services primarily through community-based organizations. Over the last decade there have been a number of changes in Head Start's operating environment, including a decrease in the number of poor children; an increase in the number, size, and scope of other federal and state early childhood programs; and an expansion in Head Start spending and enrollment. Given this environment, GAO was asked to determine (1) what is known about the extent to which Head Start programs are underenrolled, (2) ACF regional officials' and Head Start grantees' views on what factors contribute to underenrollment, and (3) what actions ACF and grantees have taken to address underenrollment.

The regional offices identified a total of about 7 percent of grantees as unacceptably underenrolled in 2001-02, significantly less than the percentage of grantees reporting enrollment ratios below 100 and 95 percent on ACF's survey of grantees. As a result of differences in regional definitions of what constitutes an unacceptable level of underenrollment, grantees with similar levels of underenrollment may be treated differently across regions. ACF regional officials and officials of underenrolled Head Start grantees often cited a mixture of factors that made it difficult to achieve full enrollment, including increased parental demand for full-day child care, a decrease in the number of eligible children, facilities-related problems, and more parents seeking openings with other sponsors of early education and care. ACF national and regional offices and grantees all report taking action to address underenrollment through the issuance of guidance, increased monitoring by regional offices, and more aggressive outreach attempts by grantees. For more on this report >>> [PDF, 668KB]

Head Start: Better Data and Processes Needed to Monitor Underenrollment. GAO-04-17. GAO. 2003. English. [PDF, 668KB].

Last Reviewed: October 2012

Last Updated: November 13, 2014