Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Schools Prod Students Toward Diplomas With Tuition, Cash

By Caralee J. Adams — June 02, 2014 11 min read
Laquetta Smith, right, hugs Lauryn Scott in 2006 after Kalamazoo Central High School’s graduation. Ms. Scott’s class was the first to benefit from the Kalamazoo Promise, which covers most tuition costs for students in the Michigan district.
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The expectation of a paycheck motivates many adults to work. Now, though, some educators and policymakers are wondering: Could an incentive of cash get students to perform in school?

To answer that question, a growing number of districts and schools across the country have experimented with using financial incentives in various ways to improve achievement. Some have given $100 or more to students who score well on an Advanced Placement test. Then there is the promise of a college scholarship at an early age in hopes of encouraging students to stay in school and succeed.

Money is indeed an enticing carrot. It sparks interest, and in some cases, produces positive results. But it’s hard to know how much impact financial incentives alone have on students’ success. Often those initiatives are coupled with added instruction for students, training for teachers, and support from the community—and for good reason.

Cash can be part of a successful approach, but experts say students also need motivated teachers to help them and strategies to improve their performance. Some who administer these programs are realizing the need for a more comprehensive approach to ensure a better return on their investment. Others are raising their program eligibility standards to give scholarships to those most likely to succeed. While some see money as a bribe that threatens to dampen students’ intrinsic motivation to learn, it does seem to offer some potential for altering students’ behaviors, and policymakers are figuring out just how to leverage it for the best results.

The College Readiness Program administered by the National Math and Science Initiative includes giving $100 to students who get a 3 or higher (on a scale of 1 to 5) on an AP exam—but their teachers get money, too, along with professional development to improve their effectiveness in the classroom.

“We don’t believe incentives as a stand-alone moves the needle, compared to a comprehensive approach, supporting teachers and students with a whole bunch of interventions,” said Gregg F. Fleisher, the chief academic officer for the Dallas-based math and science initiative. Results from the program, which started in six states and is now in 22, found that, when lured with money, students are more likely to risk the tough course.

The first year that schools participate in the NMSI program, the number of students taking and passing AP courses in mathematics, science, and English nearly doubles. The increases are even greater for African-American and Latino students, said Mr. Fleisher.

Students’ Actions

The idea behind the program is to get students into AP who may not have considered advanced work previously. Telling students that they have the potential and that they can earn money changes the game.

“Kids will invest in themselves when they know there is a reward for that investment in time,” said Karen M. Morris, the program director of the AP Training and Incentive Program Indiana. “It’s an extrinsic reward to help develop the intrinsic motivation down the line.”

The incentive is an important piece of the puzzle that conveys to students they are valued, but support is needed because many of these students struggle and need help learning to study, along with differentiated instruction, said Ms. Morris.

C. Kirabo Jackson, a labor economist from Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., evaluated an AP incentive program in Texas and found that more low-income and minority students took AP classes than in previous years and more of them scored well. In addition, though, the number of students in the school who made high scores on the ACT and the SAT increased by 30 percent and college-going rates went up 8 percent. Mr. Jackson tracked students’ performance in college and found that students in the AP incentive program were more likely than those who weren’t to stay enrolled, have higher grades, and complete a degree.

For any intervention to be effective, there needs to be supports and infrastructure, said Mr. Jackson. Successful learning is a collaboration between the student and the teacher. “You need to know how to turn increased efforts into outcomes,” he said. “If you pay students in the right conditions, it can be effective.”

At Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Bruce I. Sacerdote, a professor of economics, is experimenting with a program that includes cash incentives as part of a broader mentoring program that pairs high school seniors with Dartmouth students in an effort to guide the high school students through the college application process.

“Cash incentives as a tool by themselves are less powerful than we were hoping,” said Mr. Sacerdote. “Cash is getting people in the door.” However, there is more evidence that the intermediate steps of goal-setting and in-person mentoring have the bigger impact.

Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory conducted an experiment in Dallas, Chicago, Washington, and New York, rewarding students with cash for improvements in grades, test scores, literacy rates, and behavior in 2007-09. While the results varied by region with some positive effects, the researchers didn’t find the program helped close the achievement gap as much as they’d expected, said Rucha Vankudre, the research director at the lab. “We were looking for a significant effect, but it was not large,” she said.

What the researchers learned was that paying for specific actions, such as giving 2nd graders $2 for every book they read or for homework completion, yielded better results than paying for end results, such as better test scores. Student achievement is more likely to increase when rewards are given for inputs to the educational process rather than tying incentives to outputs—since students don’t know how to turn their excitement about rewards into achievement, according to research by Roland G. Fryer Jr., a professor of economics at Harvard.

Evolving ‘Promise’ Model

A college scholarship is becoming an increasingly popular way to offer a long-range incentive to motivate students. More than two dozen of these “Promise-type” programs across the country are operating now. While some are universal models that give free tuition to all, more have merit requirements to qualify.

Strategy Choices

Teachers and school-based administrators surveyed by the Education Week Research Center feel that some strategies for promoting student engagement and motivation are more vital than others. A majority of respondents (64 percent) express a deep belief in the importance of schoolwork that is relevant to real-world challenges and life experiences. But only 14 percent think incentive programs are important.


SOURCE: Education Week Research Center, 2014

“There is a natural tendency to want to give money to deserving kids. Who wants to give a scholarship to a bad student?” said Michelle Miller-Adams, a research fellow at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich., who has researched such programs.

As scholarship providers track the success—or lack of success—among recipients, some are changing criteria and adding support services to ensure that students make the most of the opportunity.

Since 2006, the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship has covered most of the tuition costs for public school graduates at in-state public colleges or universities, depending on how long the student has been a resident of the 13,000-student district.

The offer can be used for up to 10 years, and nearly 85 percent of Kalamazoo graduates (two-thirds of whom meet federal poverty guidelines) have taken advantage of it.

Since the launch, district enrollment has grown by more than 2,400 students and students also have been suspended fewer days and are earning more high school credits. Another study of the short-term effects of the Kalamazoo Promise showed an increase in the GPAs of African-American students.

While there have not been large changes in the four-year graduation rates, the five-year rate has risen from 73 percent in 2007 to 75 percent. From 2008 to 2013, the dropout rate fell from 18 percent to 13 percent.

“Knowing that you can go to college makes a difference,” said Bob Jorth, the executive director of the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship program. “That’s becoming embedded in the culture.”

Still, just half of all scholarship recipients finish a college degree in six years. With only two cohorts to analyze, Mr. Jorth said the program is still a work in progress. To address the low completion rates, Kalamazoo Valley Community College has invested more in support programs, and Kalamazoo Promise tweaked its program to allow students to attend part time. Those actions have improved Kalamazoo students’ achievement (as measured by grades and progress) at the community college by about 20 percent since last year, said Mr. Jorth.

The scholarship program itself does not provide academic help. However, the community has responded with volunteer mentors and tutors, and the high school has ramped up the academic rigor of its classes and increased college-preparation resources for students.

Many of the Promise scholarship programs that popped up after Kalamazoo’s have made their scholarships contingent on some measure of academic or personal merit. For instance, the Pittsburgh Promise requires a 2.5 GPA and a 90 percent attendance record. The New Haven (Conn.) Promise set the bar at a 3.0 GPA, along with attendance and community-service requirements.

But not extending the scholarship to all has a price, said Ms. Miller-Adams of Upjohn. Students who are struggling in class and don’t have money for college may lose hope; a universal scholarship sets up high expectations for the entire student body. When the push is college for all, the school can expand advanced courses and college counseling.

“Money brings down the most visible barrier to college,” said Ms. Miller-Adams. “But then you see other barriers behind it—academic, social-emotional readiness, college knowledge.”

College Completion

Indiana tried another approach with its 21st Century Scholars Program, set up in 1990 as a college incentive for students who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

“It was a promise if you stay in high school and do the work, you will be able to go to college. It was designed to keep students out of trouble,” said Mary Jane Michalak, an associate commissioner in the division of financial aid for the the state’s higher education commission.

Students apply in the 7th or 8th grade, and, if they are deemed income-eligible, the state agrees to cover tuition expenses for four years at an Indiana public college or university. Accepted students are asked to pledge to stay on track through high school graduation and not use illegal drugs or alcohol or commit a crime or delinquent act.

Although the program is popular, policymakers were not pleased with the early results—just 15 percent of the scholars were finishing a degree in four years.

To improve completion rates, the legislature in 2011 passed a law that requires students who receive the scholarship to complete a program to help them plan, prepare, and pay for college. Students must also maintain a 2.5 GPA, rather than just a 2.0, and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to make sure they are getting all aid for which their family qualifies after the 21st Century grant.

“We started to change our focus from access to college completion,” said Ms. Michalak.

Oklahoma has also modified its Promise scholarship. It raised income limits to expand eligibility, increased the GPA to qualify from 2.0 to 2.5, and required students to achieve an ACT score of 22 out of 36. The state also started to let students in the program as early as 8th grade if they qualify for the scholarship, instead of waiting until high school, in the hopes of spurring them to get serious about college preparation earlier, said Glen D. Johnson, the chancellor of the Oklahoma board of regents for higher education.

‘Element of Certainty’

As a last-dollar scholarship, the Promise fills in the gap of tuition for students from families who make less than $50,000, with average awards of about $3,000 a year, to attend a public two- or four-year college in Oklahoma. To make sure students know they can count on the money being there when they graduate, the legislature in 2007 established permanent funding for the scholarship in the state budget.

“This introduces an element of certainty early in a student’s life,” said Mr. Johnson. “As early as middle school, students make an assumption about whether they have a shot at college or not.”

Since 2008, the nonprofit Say Yes to Education Inc. has worked to improve high school and college completion with a commitment of free college tuition to children beginning in kindergarten. There are also wraparound services for children and families: academic support, health care, financial services, and legal services. The districts in Syracuse and Buffalo, N.Y., have embraced the model, with other chapters emerging in Hartford, Conn.; New York; and Philadelphia.

Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, the president of Say Yes, said the early promise and communitywide support generates energy to enable students to achieve the goal of college. “Even though there may be financial aid at the end of the rainbow, if you are growing up in poverty and have no experience with college, it’s not real to them. They look at the sticker price and say, ‘That’s not for us,’ ” she said. Because the district is so poor, Deborah A. Doyle, a middle school teacher in Syracuse, said the scholarship “opens the eyes for kids who may not have thought about it before.” Ms. Doyle, whose family qualifies for the Say Yes scholarship, said the money allowed her three daughters to consider private colleges and avoid substantial student debt.

Nationally, more than 75 percent of all students in the Say Yes program graduated from high school, and half finished a postsecondary degree.

In the District of Columbia this year, City Councilmember David Catania has championed a new D.C. Promise program using city funds to give students up to $7,500 annually in last-dollar scholarships based on economic need and extending eligibility to families earning up to $215,000. Rather than setting GPA or behavior requirements, the program would aim to remove all barriers to access and be open to all graduates. It is awaiting approval from Congress.

With any incentive program—whether a promise scholarship or cash payments to students for classroom performance—it’s policymakers who need to be convinced of the results.

“Symbols do matter. They get attention,” said Mr. Sacerdote of Dartmouth. “But if you simply promise money with no hope of a college-preparatory culture, it would be tough.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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