Harvard-Brookings study finds vouchers increased college enrollment for black students

A first-of-its-kind study of a private school voucher program in New York City, published by Harvard University and the Brookings Institution, found “large, statistically significant positive impacts” from the voucher program on college enrollment among African-American children. The researchers reported that “using a voucher to attend private school increased the overall college enrollment rate among African-Americans by 24 percent.”

The study was unique in that it was the first to use a randomized experiment – the gold standard in social science research – to look at how getting a private school voucher impacted college enrollment. The study collected data from 2011 on the college enrollment of 2,642 of 2,666 children (99.1 percent) in public schools who sought a voucher through the program in 1997. The children had to be from low-income families and just entering first grade, or currently in grades 1-4, to be eligible for one of the 1,000 scholarships awarded (worth up to $1,400 a year for three years). The fact that identifying information was collected for every child who applied allowed the researchers to compare the educational outcomes of children who received and used a scholarship or voucher to those who received a scholarship offer but did not use it and to those who did not receive a scholarship offer at all.

This study provides multiple insights into arguments made during the debate surrounding the referendum on Utah’s proposed voucher program of several years ago. First, opponents of the voucher program argued that the vouchers would not make private school affordable for low-income families in Utah. The study’s findings, however, suggest that this is false.

For instance, the maximum yearly amount of the New York City scholarship was $1,400, compared with the $1,728 average tuition of what was then the city’s largest private school provider, the city’s Catholic schools. Further, of those low-income families that were offered a scholarship, 77 percent used them to attend private school at some point during the three-year period, with an average of roughly two years of private school attended. Clearly, the possibility of having to cover a portion of private school tuition not covered by a voucher was not a major obstacle for low-income families. Rather, the study confirms what common sense suggests: Vouchers make private school tuition affordable for low-income families, even if a voucher scholarship does not fully cover private school tuition, because most parents are willing to stretch to give their child a good education, even if the barriers to a better education seem insurmountable to those who don’t have to face them.

Second, the study confirms what the proponents of Utah’s voucher program asserted: The biggest benefits of private school vouchers are felt by those who need them most, especially minority children. The study found that the two groups that experienced statistically significant, positive impacts on college enrollment were minorities: African-American and Hispanic children. Where the impact on African-American children was large, the impact on Hispanic children was smaller, although the researchers note that “we cannot say with confidence that the impacts for the two groups are statistically different.”

Further, anyone who only focuses on the overall impact of the voucher program would completely miss how beneficial vouchers are for minority students. As the study notes, “Overall, we find no significant effects of the offer of a school voucher on college enrollment.” Focusing only on the overall impacts noted in voucher studies to argue that the research on such programs was “mixed” or “inconclusive” was a common tactic of voucher opponents in Utah, ignoring entirely the fact that most high-quality research on vouchers has found significant benefits for minorities, especially African-American children.

This new research, while illuminating and informative, is not likely to mean a renewed push for vouchers in Utah. But if the issue ever comes up again, hopefully research such as this new study will encourage opponents of such school choice policies to do Utahns the service of a debate based on facts, rather than just fear.