The Effects of Means-Tested Private School Choice Programs on College Enrollment and Graduation

Research Report

The Effects of Means-Tested Private School Choice Programs on College Enrollment and Graduation

Abstract

Private school choice programs are rapidly gaining traction, with nearly 450,000 student participants in 2019—an increase of 300,000 students in just 15 years. This report evaluates how well some of these programs prepare students for college by examining college enrollment and completion data from the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and the Washington, DC, Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Unlike previous research on private school choice, this body of work takes a long-term approach, focusing on college enrollment and graduation rates rather than student satisfaction and test scores. Over the past three years, this research has demonstrated that private school choice programs yield varying results on graduation rates, with positive outcomes for students in the Florida and Milwaukee programs and no statistically significant positive or negative outcome in DC.

This report presents the most up-to-date data and proposes topics for future research that would better equip policymakers to make decisions. The updated data in this report show more consistent positive effects of Milwaukee’s private school choice program, and the results in DC still show no significant effect, even as we broaden the sample to include more students.


The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program

The Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship program is the nation’s largest private school choice program. It provides more than 100,000 scholarships annually to be used in participating private schools. 

This study compares 16,111 FTC participants with up to five nonparticipating students who were enrolled in the same baseline school and grade with similar characteristics. 

The recent study showed that students in FTC were more likely to go to and graduate from college than their public school peers.

  • Fifty-seven percent of FTC students enrolled in college compared with 51 percent of non-FTC students, which is a 12 percent increase.
  • FTC students had higher college-going rates in all sectors and were more likely to attend college full time.
  • The FTC program’s impact on both enrollment and degree attainment increased with the number of years of FTC participation.
  • For students who first entered the FTC program in grades 8 to 10, 12 percent earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with 10 percent of non-FTC students. 

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is the nation’s oldest modern private school voucher program. This program now includes 27,857 students at 126 private schools, both religious and nonreligious. 

This study examines the outcomes of 1,926 students enrolled in grades three through eight in the program and 801 MPCP ninth-graders. Each student was matched with a public school counterpart in 2006, and each pair was tracked through the end of 2017. 

Overall, we find that MPCP students are more likely than public school students to enroll and persist at four-year universities, but there is no significant difference in rates for two-year colleges.

For ninth-grade students

  • MPCP students were significantly more likely to enroll in a four-year university (7 percentage points higher), and they lasted, on average, 20 percent longer there.
  • There was no statistically significant difference in enrollment at two-year colleges.
  • Graduation rates were the same between public school and MPCP students at both two- and four-year institutions.

For third-through-eighth-grade students

  • MPCP students were 5 percentage points more likely to enroll in any type of college by 2018, which is especially true for four-year students (4 percentage points higher).
  • Private school choice program students also graduated from college at higher rates, especially from four-year institutions, where there was a 38 percent increase.

These updated results are somewhat stronger than prior Urban Institute research on the MPCP. Now that we observe students for an additional year, we see statistically significant positive effects on both college enrollment and attainment for MPCP students first studied in grades three through eight.


The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is the only federally funded private school choice program. The program was created through an act of Congress in January 2004 and has since enrolled between 1,000 and 2,000 students a year.

This study tracks 1,776 students who applied for OSP’s random lottery in 2004 or 2005, comparing the outcomes of those who won a spot in OSP with the outcomes of those who did not. 

The study finds that students offered a scholarship enrolled in college at rates that were statistically indistinguishable from students who lost the lottery. 

  • Lottery winners were somewhat less likely to enroll in college within two years of expected high school graduation and slightly more likely to enroll within four or more years after expected high school graduation. 
  • None of these results, however, are statistically distinguishable from zero.

The finding that students in OSP were not significantly more likely or less likely to enroll in college than public school students is similar to Urban’s previous analysis of a slightly smaller group of OSP applicants.


What does this all mean?  

Our research finds that these three publicly funded private school choice programs have varying effects on college enrollment and graduation rates, with Florida and Milwaukee yielding positive results and DC showing no statistically significant difference. This complicates the school choice narrative and highlights the need for further analysis.

An important component of that continued research will be developing short-term indicators that are predictive of long-term growth and performance instead of completing analysis on policy programs 10 to 15 years afterwards. This will enable policymakers to better understand the effects of private school choice.

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