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Florida's School Choice Program Drove Up College Enrollment Rates, Study Finds

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Students attending private school with the help of a state-sponsored program in Florida enrolled in college at higher rates than their public-school peers.

That's according to a new study from the Urban Institutewhich claims to be the first to examine the effects of participating in a statewide private school choice program on both college enrollment and graduation rates. Researchers looked at only one of Florida's three private school choice programs: the Florida Tax-Credit scholarship. 

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While the study showed that participation had notable effects on how many students went on to college after high school, the impact on degree attainment was virtually non-existent.

This is still likely welcome news for private school choice advocates—which includes U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is a longtime philanthropic booster of vouchers and other private school choice policies—after a string of studies that found taking part in similar programs in the District of ColumbiaIndiana, Louisiana, and Ohio had a negative impact on students' test scores, at least in the short term.

There's been a surge in national interest in private school choice with President Donald Trump and his administration's embrace of the policy idea. Although Trump's plans to create a federal private school choice program appear to have fallen short for the time being, his embrace of private school choice has elevated questions over how well these programs serve students.


Private School Choice Explained: What Are School Vouchers and How do They Work? 


Florida is a particularly interesting case study as it has the largest private school choice program in the country with nearly 100,000 students participating. The state gives hefty tax incentives to businesses that donate money to fund scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend private schools. The study did not look at the state's voucher program or its education savings accounts program. 

What the Study Found:

Attending a private school with a tax-credit scholarship increased students' college enrollment rates by 6 percentage points. That number grew to as much as 18 percentage points the longer students participated in the program.

The bulk of students matriculated to a two-year college, which researchers said "mirrors typical college enrollment patterns for Florida high school students."

Florida-voucher-study-graph.jpg

But participating in the tax-credit scholarship program failed to move the needle in a meaningful way when it comes to actually graduating from college. Students who started in the program in middle school were only 0.6 percentage points more likely to earn a college degree than their peers in public school. There was no significant difference in degree attainment between students who started the tax-credit scholarship program in high school and their public-school counterparts.

"But this study shows that policymakers considering the design, expansion, or reform of private school choice programs should carefully consider not just their likely impact on short-term metrics such as test scores, but also how they might shape long-term outcomes, including college enrollment and graduation," write the study's authors.

There are a few other details that may be of particular interest to policymakers, researchers, and advocates—both those for and against school choice.

The researchers found differences in college enrollment rates based on the type of private school. Catholic schools and non-Christian religious schools had larger positive effects than other kinds of Christian schools and private schools that were not affiliated with a religion.

The study followed a massive number of students—10,000 in all—who participated in the tax-credit scholarship program between 2004 and 2010 and enrolled in public, in-state colleges. It compared them to students who remained in the same public schools the scholarship recipients had left.

However, the study's authors acknowledge a couple of big caveats: they couldn't get data for students that went to private colleges and college outside of Florida, and their research method may not have eliminated selection bias—the idea that the most motivated families are likely to opt into school choice programs.

You can read more on their methodology in the full study: "The Effects of Statewide Private School Choice on College Enrollment and Graduation."

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Graph from "The Effects of Statewide Private School Choice on College Enrollment and Graduation" by Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn

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