Study Finds Vouchers Increase Minority College Enrollment

A new study that examines the long-term impact of some of the most popular interventions of school reform advocates finds that African-American students who took advantage of voucher programs during the years they attended elementary schools were significantly more likely to go on to enroll in an institution of higher learning.

Using the pool of New York City students who attended elementary school in the late 1990s as the sample size for a randomized study, Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University found that African-American students who enrolled in a private school aided by voucher scholarship during those years were nearly 25% more likely to attend college than their peers who did not.

The data comes courtesy of the New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation Program, which began offering 3-year scholarships to qualified students in 1997. Up to 1,000 students from low-income families all over the city received up to $1,400 to enroll in a private school of their choice. The scholarship program came about after the then-head of the New York Archdiocese, Cardinal John J. O’Connor, encouraged Mayor Rudy Guiliani to take advantage of the city’s Catholic schools to help students who were living near some of the worst-performing elementary public schools in the five boroughs. Although the efforts to raise the funds to cover the tuition of the students via the public purse went nowhere, the SCSF started up to fill in the gap.

SCSF asked an independent research team to conduct an experimental evaluation of the impact of the intervention on student achievement and other outcomes, such as school climate and school quality, as identified by responses to questions asked of the adult accompanying the child to the testing session. To participate in the lottery, students other than those who had yet to begin first grade were required to take a standardized test. While students were taking the test, the parent or other adult accompanying the child provided information verifying eligibility and filled out detailed questionnaires that posed questions about the child’s family background and the current school the child attended. Crucially, all families were asked to supply identifying information for each child applying for a scholarship, including name, date of birth, and social security number.

Originally, the researchers tried to assess the impact of the scholarship program by looking at the students’ exam scores, but eventually widened the focus to include measures such as college enrollment data, how long after high school graduation students started attending college classes, and how many were accepted in two-year versus four-year colleges. College enrollment data came courtesy of the National Student Clearinghouse.

A voucher offer is shown to have increased the overall (parttime and full-time) enrollment rate of African Americans by 7.1 percentage points, an increase of 20 percent. If the offered scholarship was actually used to attend private school, the impact on African American college enrollment is estimated to be 8.7 percentage points, a 24 percent increase.

Although improvement of about 1.7% was seen among Hispanic students enrolled in the voucher program, the results were not deemed to be statistically significant.