This study of Washington, DC’s, Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) provides the first experimental evidence on the effect of a publicly funded private school choice program on college enrollment. Comparing the college enrollment rates of students who were offered a scholarship to attend private school through the OSP lottery with those of students who applied for but did not win a scholarship, we find that students who won the scholarship were neither more nor less likely to enroll in college than students who did not win the scholarship.
Created by an act of Congress in January 2004, the OSP provides private-school scholarships to low-income students in DC. The program has enrolled between 1,000 and 2,000 students each year since its inception, with enrollment peaking in 2007–08. Program enrollment is limited largely by funding, and random lotteries are conducted when there are more applicants than spaces available.
The initial evaluation of the OSP found that participation increased reading test scores, parents’ perceptions of safety, and high school graduation rates. A separate, more recent evaluation reported initial decreases in reading and math test scores. These earlier studies, however, relied on self-reported information by students and families.
Our study uses administrative records to measure the college enrollment patterns of participants in the first two lotteries who are now old enough to potentially have graduated from high school and enrolled in college. By comparing students who won the lottery to similar students who entered but did not win, we are able to compare students who differ only in their luck in the lottery.
Effects on college enrollment
Overall, students offered a scholarship were somewhat less likely to enroll in college within two years of expected high school graduation. This pattern holds for both two- and four-year colleges and for four-year public and four-year private colleges. None of these differences, however, are statistically distinguishable from zero, and the small difference disappears for students we can track for more than two years after high school.
Students who won private-school scholarships from the nation’s only federally funded school voucher program were not significantly more or less likely to enroll in college than students who did not win a scholarship. But given the significant changes to the DC education system since the students in this study applied for scholarships in 2004 and 2005, it will be important to continue to track the outcomes of more-recent participants in K–12 schools and beyond.