School & District Management

N.Y.C. Study Finds Vouchers Boost Blacks’ College-Going Rates

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — August 23, 2012 5 min read

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 increase college-going rates for black students, a study of participants in a privately funded scholarship program concludes.

Forty-two percent of 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 is being presented this morning 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 a participating private school, most of which were Roman Catholic, 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 extracted from the results of the study.

“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 National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education, which opposes school vouchers, in Alexandria, Va. “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 special-needs students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The New York state legislature considered a bill that included vouchers in its most recent session.

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, which provided tuition aid of up to $1,400 for low-income students to attend private schools in the city. Approximately half of those students received the 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, who made up about 40 percent of the study’s participants, were more likely than peers who had failed to win a voucher to enroll in college (42 percent compared with 36 percent), twice as likely to enroll in a selective private university (7 percent versus 3 percent), and 50 percent more likely to enroll in a private university if they received a voucher.

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 parents of black students in the study were less likely than the parents of the Hispanic students to be Catholic, and indicated that they were less satisfied with their other options than the Hispanic parents were.

“The Hispanic students who participated in this study were more likely to go to college in any case,” said Mr. Peterson, a finding that he said may suggest that the black participants were a more disadvantaged group.

“Choice makes a bigger difference when students’ options without additional choices look bleak,” said Jay P. Greene, the chair of 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, pointed out that the impact of actually using a voucher was not much greater than the effect of being offered one. The study suggests 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 and not using it, Mr. Lubienski said. “I’m very much in doubt that this is statistically significant,” Mr. Lubienski said.

Mr. Peterson was a co-author of a previous controversial study of the same group of New York City students. It found no significant impacts overall on standardized tests but some growth for black students.

“This nicely lines up with those results,” said Mr. Chingos.

Impact on the Disadvantaged

The authors touted the improvement as evidence of a positive impact on the most disadvantaged students from what Mr. Chingos described as a “modest intervention.”

But it is unclear whether the most disadvantaged students were represented at all, said Mr. Greene. Since the scholarships provided through the fund did not cover full tuition at most schools, which was an average of $1,728 in New York City Catholic schools at the time of the study, parents who could not make up the difference may not have applied.

The New York City program also took place before other alternatives to regular public schools, such as charter schools, were widely available to parents.

“These are highly limited choice programs,” Mr. Greene said. “This doesn’t necessarily tell us what a larger, full-scale choice program could do. That uncertainty could go in either direction.”

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. “Test scores are proxies,” he said. “What you really care about is how kids do in the real world.”

Mr. Petrilli said that Catholic schools may be more effective at teaching students certain character traits, like grit, that lead to future success.

The research adds to a growing body of work that looks at students’ educational attainment rather than their performance on standardized tests when measuring the effects of vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of school choice.

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

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Study Finds Vouchers Boost Blacks’ College-Going Rates

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