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Study: Paying Students For AP Scores Increases Educational Attainment

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 06, 2012 3 min read

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Should knowledge be its own reward? Or could paying students for performance encourage desirable educational and career outcomes?

In “Do College-Prep Programs Improve Long-Term Outcomes?”, Northwestern University’s C. Kirabo Jackson examines the Advanced Placement Incentive Program (APIP), a college preparatory program for disadvantaged students, and its impact on the educational attainment, employment status, and wage earnings of its participants. Jackson places his work in the context of research examining the effectiveness of other college preparatory programs aimed at disadvantaged students, but notes that APIP’s strategy of using cash incentives sets it apart from other college preparatory programs like Upward Bound.

The APIP, run by Dallas-based nonprofit AP Strategies, includes a teacher-training program that involves a lead teacher who trains other teachers; a curriculum to help prepare students for AP courses; and a system of cash incentives, funded by private donors and the district. AP Strategies matched donors with interested districts; there are generally more interested districts than there are donors. Teachers receive between $100 and $500 for each score of 3 or above in their classes while lead teachers receive additional bonuses. Students get a discount on the examination fees and receive between $100 and $500 for each score of 3 or above. The amount paid varies between schools but is consistent within a school. The participating schools tended to be large (average enrollment of 1,836, as opposed to 751 for non-participating schools) and located in large or mid-sized cities in Texas.

Jackson set out to determine the APIP’s impact on the college attendance, sophomore-year college persistence, college completion, labor market participation, and wage earnings of students who were in 10th grade between 1994 and 2007. He used the K-12 and college educational data available through the Texas Education Agency and Texas Higher Education Board to determine program participants’ educational attainment, and unemployment insurance information to determine workplace participation and earnings.

Schools did not adopt the program all at once, which allowed Mr. Jackson to compare students from the same school before and after APIP adoption and to make comparisons between schools. In the report, he goes into detail about the impact the staggered adoption had on his methodology and details a number of tests he performed to ensure that factors like student selection into the program didn’t bias his results.

He found that students enrolled in APIP took and passed more AP courses and enrolled in college, were more likely to persist in college, earn college credits, and earn bachelors degrees, and more likely to be employed and earning higher wages. For instance, before the program was adopted, approximately 22.9 percent of students took an AP course; 30.4 percent took such courses after the program was adopted. Each student also took more AP courses.

Some more findings from Jackson’s report:


  • Among students likely to take AP courses, there was a 1.7-percentage point increase in graduating from college, a 2.7-percentage point increase in the likelihood of being employed in 2010, and a 5.7-percent increase in earnings conditional on employment.
  • The results also reveal sizable benefits for Hispanic students, who experience about a 2.5-percentage point increase in college degree attainment and an 11-percent increase in earnings.
  • The earnings increases for Hispanic and black students are large enough to reduce the black-white earnings gap by one third and to eliminate the Hispanic-white earnings gap entirely.

He also compared schools that paid $100 per exam to schools that paid more, and found that while both groups saw benefits, schools that paid between $101 and $500 per exam saw a bigger wage increase than schools that paid less.

Jackson writes that his research indicates that implementing programs like APIP in schools can lead to dramatically improved outcomes for students—and he singles out the financial incentive as the piece that may have the biggest impact. The program does not seem to have any ill effects, he writes, and so there is no reason to fear financial incentives when they’re coupled with the additional teacher training and curricular resources that allow the teachers’ and students’ efforts to pay off. It seems to me like this coupling might be the most important part—backing up the incentive with the tools to ensure that students can achieve success. What do you think?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

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