Conceptualizing and Measuring Access to Early Care and Education

Publication Date: November 5, 2020
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Research Questions

  1. How is ECE access currently being conceptualized and measured for each of the five primary dimensions of ECE access (Reasonable effort, affordability, support’s the child’s development, meet’s the parents’ needs, and equity) within the literature?
  2. How are multiple dimensions of access currently being operationalized and combined into a single composite measure or index?
  3. How can researchers and policymakers best merge together, combine, and/or weigh different measures of access across multiple dimensions in order to both consistently document and improve access to ECE, particularly among the most marginalized populations?

Recent federal, state, and local policies and initiatives focus on increasing access to high-quality ECE for all families. Given the prevalence and potential importance of these initiatives for families and children, it is useful for the field to take stock of how access to ECE is conceptualized and measured and to understand the extent to which context, purposes, and available indicators shape the assessment of access.

A recent report - Defining and Measuring Access to High-Quality Early Care and Education (ECE): A Guidebook for Policymakers and Researchers – provided guidance to support movement toward more consistent definitions, analysis and reporting on access. The report offered a family centered definition of access that emphasizes the importance of considering multiple dimensions of access including the degree to which families exert reasonable effort in securing ECE, the affordability of ECE, whether ECE meets the parents’ needs, and whether ECE supports the child’s development. The current report provides findings from a literature review that investigates and catalogues recent efforts to define and operationalize access, with a focus on the extent to which current work at the state and federal level aligns with the multi-dimensional definition of access proposed in the Access Guidebook. The review documents the extent to which current research and policy efforts have expanded beyond measures of the  availability of ECE slots and affordability to also include measures of the availability of ECE information, quality of ECE programs, provision of services that support both the child’s development and the family’s needs, and the removal of structural barriers to ECE for socially or economically disadvantaged or at-risk populations.


The goal of this report is to crosswalk recent definitions of access in the literature with the multi-dimensional definition as presented in the Access Guidebook, and to provide a launching point for future discussion around ongoing and planned efforts to document and improve access.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • While availability and utilization of ECE services continue to be the foundation for most definitions and indicators of access, more than 88 percent of the reports and articles reviewed explicitly define and measure access in ways that span multiple dimensions.
  • More than half of the reports and articles also address issues of equity, which emerged in the process of this review as a fifth dimension of access. Articles that addressed equity highlighted the capacity of ECE to reach and engage underserved, disadvantaged, high-risk, or vulnerable populations.
  • Most articles and reports present findings related to multiple dimensions of access, but few researchers combine indicators across dimensions in a way that provides an overall score or characterization that takes these multiple dimensions into account.
  • Despite efforts to address multiple dimensions of ECE access, current research rarely applies both a systems perspective (that takes into account factors and constraints on the supply side, such as availability and cost) and a family perspective (that takes into account demand-side factors related to characteristics of families) to understanding and measuring access.
  • The scarcity of research that combines a systems perspective and a family perspective may be due, in part, to lack of data on a range of family-centered indicators.


This report synthesizes state and federal reports and US-based research published in peer-reviewed journals during the past 5 years (2013–2018) that conceptualize and/or define access, or a key dimension of access.

A total of 124 articles and reports were catalogued. Approximately 60 percent of the sources identified were reports or briefs, and 35 percent were peer-reviewed journal articles. Approximately 60 percent of the reports and articles analyzed data at the state or local level, and 34 percent analyzed data across multiple states or at the national level.


  • There is a need for future work to include measures of access that incorporate more demand-side factors related to characteristics of families (e.g., family’s capacity to travel to services, parents with schedules that require nonstandard or flexible hours of care, etc).
  • This larger scope will require more data collection efforts that include a wider range of family-centered measures, data on availability of information about ECE programming, and parental decision making.
  • There is a need for future work that accounts for community contexts and the match between those needs and the existence of services that align, paying particular attention to potential differences in demand and additional barriers to utilization and fit of services to meet the needs of different cultural, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and vulnerable populations.
  • There is a need for continued exploration of how to best merge together, combine, and/or weigh different measures of access across multiple dimensions, as well as more clarity and consistency in defining and operationalizing access in the field.


Thomson, D., Cantrell, E., Guerra, G., Gooze, R., & Tout, K. (2020). Conceptualizing and Measuring Access to Early Care and Education. OPRE Report #2020-106. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Early Childhood Education
Access to early care and education means that parents, with reasonable effort and affordability, can enroll their child in an arrangement that supports the child’s development and meets the parents’ needs.
The process of defining variables into measurable indicators of access.
The process of identifying the key constructs that make up the concept of “access” and how they are related to each other.
System-Level Data:
The level of analysis which takes place on a system-wide level, such as data that is collected by local, state, or national agencies or departments about attributes of the programs, providers, or populations within its jurisdiction.
Family-Level Data:
The level of analysis which takes place on a family unit level, such as information collected about individual families that reflects family beliefs and attitudes, characteristics of family decision-making, and perceived barriers to accessing childcare.
Family-Centered Perspective:
Intentionally using data to examine issues related to families’ needs through the family’s point of view. In many cases, family-level data analysis allows researchers to incorporate a family-centered perspective into their research. However, in some cases, the most readily available and reliable data is typically collected using system-level indicators (e.g., providers’ hours of operation), and that information can still be evaluated in part through the lens of families’ needs (e.g., the need of some families for care during non-traditional hours).
Systems Perspective:
Using data, usually collected at a system level, to examine access in relation to the availability and provision of services and thus determined by factors and constraints on the supply side, such as availability and cost.
Dimensions of Access:
The first dimension of access to ECE, reasonable effort, posits that there must be sufficient availability of age-appropriate ECE slots near parents’ homes or workplaces, and information about those ECE options must be readily available. The second dimension of access, affordability, reflects a broad definition of cost, including cost to parents, subsidies or financial assistance, as well as costs incurred by ECE programs for providing services. The third dimension of access to ECE is supporting the child's development, that states families should be able to obtain care that is high quality and meets children’s developmental needs. The fourth dimension of access to ECE states that families should be able to obtain care that meets the parents’ needs across a variety of factors, including parental preferences for specific program types or features, or the need for extended care, care during non-traditional hours, or care for multiple children. The fifth, newly added dimension of access to ECE is intended to highlight disparities in availability, affordability, quality, and other characteristics of ECE, and can be defined as the ability to reach underserved or disadvantaged children.
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