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Published in Print: August 29, 2012, as Study: Vouchers Linked to College-Going for Black Students
Includes correction(s).

Study: Vouchers Linked to College-Going for Black Students

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Receiving a voucher to attend a private school in New York City did not increase the likelihood of attending college for most students, but did lead to higher college-going rates for black students, a study of participants in a privately funded scholarship program concludes.

Forty-two percent of the 1,363 students who received vouchers through the New York School Choice Scholarship Fund, and 42 percent of those who applied for but did not receive the tuition aid, had enrolled in college within three years of their expected high school graduation date, according to the study, which was presented last week at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. It was co-written by Paul E. Peterson, a professor of government and the director of Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance, and Matthew M. Chingos, a fellow at Brookings' Brown Center on Education Policy.

But African-American students who used the vouchers to attend private schools were 8.7 percentage points, or 24 percent, more likely to attend college, and were twice as likely to attend a selective private university as their peers who were not winners in the voucher lottery.

"This is consistent with evidence from other voucher programs ... and shows that vouchers are an effective intervention," said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that favors parental-choice-based schooling options.

But vouchers are a highly politicized topic, and some researchers and advocates disputed how much could be extrapolated from the results.

"While it provides some information, it really lacks the depth to generalize to a bigger population," said Jim A. Hull, a policy analyst with the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education, which opposes school vouchers. "The rhetoric doesn't necessarily match the findings."

There is no longer such a voucher program in New York City, but five states offer low-income students vouchers to help defray tuition costs at private schools, and several others offer similar programs for students with special needs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Effects for Some

The study tracks 2,642 New York City students entering elementary school in 1997 who applied for vouchers from the scholarship fund. The NYSCSF provided tuition aid of up to $1,400 for low-income students to attend any participating private school, most of which were Roman Catholic. Approximately half the students received scholarships, and 78 percent of the scholarship winners used them to attend private school for at least one year. The vouchers were distributed to students by lottery, allowing researchers to compare students from families that were similarly motivated for their children to succeed in school.

The researchers used college-enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse to track participants' educational attainment after high school. The rate of college enrollment of Hispanic students was unaffected by whether or not those students had received a voucher—45 percent attended college either way. On the other hand, African-American students were more likely than peers who had failed to win a voucher to enroll in college (42 percent compared with 36 percent) and twice as likely to enroll in a selective private university (7 percent versus 3 percent).

The authors speculate that Hispanic families may have been more likely to be interested in vouchers for religious reasons in addition to dissatisfaction with their current schooling options. The black parents were less likely than those of Hispanic students to be Catholic, and indicated less satisfaction with their other schooling options.

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"Choice makes a bigger difference when students' options without additional choices look bleak," said Jay P. Greene, who chairs the education reform department at the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Christopher Lubienski, an associate professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, noted that the impact of actually using a voucher was not much greater than the effect of being offered one. The study shows that being offered a voucher increased the college-enrollment rate by 7.1 percentage points, suggesting that the 8.7 percentage point gain from actually using the voucher to attend private school caused only a 1.6 percentage point increase more than being offered a voucher, Mr. Lubienski said. “I’m very much in doubt that this [1.6 percentage point increase] is statistically significant,” Mr. Lubienski said.

While the authors touted the results for black students as evidence of a positive impact on the "most disadvantaged," Mr. Greene said it is unclear whether the most disadvantaged students were represented. Since the scholarships did not cover full tuition at most schools, which averaged $1,728 in New York City Catholic schools at the time, parents who could not pay at all may not have applied.

Voucher programs seem to have a stronger impact on students' educational attainment than on their performance on standardized tests, said the Fordham Institute's Mr. Petrilli. "What you really care about is how kids do in the real world," he said, adding that Catholic schools may be more effective at teaching students certain character traits, like grit, that lead to future success.

Mr. Chingos said his research team would likely look at whether the same set of students actually graduated from college later.

Vol. 32, Issue 02, Page 7

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story inaccurately paraphrases Christopher Lubienski’s description of the 7.1 percentage-point gain in college enrollment seen among one group of students in the voucher study. That gain was found for the entire group of students who received an offer of a voucher, regardless of whether they used it or not.

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