Although several studies have documented the effects of statewide private school choice programs on student test scores, this report is the first to examine the effects of one of these programs on college enrollment and graduation. Using data from the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship program, we find that low-income Florida students who attended private schools using an FTC scholarship enrolled in and graduated from Florida colleges at a higher rate than their public school counterparts.
The FTC program, the largest private school choice program in the nation, provides low-income families a scholarship that can be used to enroll in participating private schools. The scholarships are funded through corporate donations that are reimbursed by tax credits. About 100,000 students and 2,000 private schools currently participate in the FTC program. Our research indicates that in addition to being from low-income families, these students are at low-performing public schools and have poor test performance (before FTC participation) compared with their peers.
To measure the effects of private school choice, we compare the long-term outcomes of more than 10,000 low-income students who first used FTC vouchers between 2004 and 2010 with outcomes of students with similar characteristics who never participated. We only track students who enrolled in Florida public colleges and universities, where 79 percent of all first-time undergraduates from Florida matriculate.
Effects on college enrollment
Participation in the FTC program increased college enrollment rates by 6 percentage points, or about 15 percent, for students who participated in the FTC program at some point during their education. Of students who entered FTC in elementary or middle school, 45 percent enrolled in college, compared with 39 percent of their non-FTC counterparts. For students who entered FTC during high school, college enrollment rates were 48 percent for FTC students and 42 percent for non-FTC students.
Almost all of this effect is because of increased enrollment in community colleges, which mirrors typical college enrollment patterns for Florida high school students. There was still, however, a small positive effect on four-year college enrollment for students who began FTC in elementary or middle school.
The benefit of the choice program grows with the number of years a student participated. The college enrollment rate for students who participated in the program for four or more years was as much as 17 percentage points (46 percent) higher than for non-FTC students. This likely reflects both the impact of additional years of participation and the fact that students are likely to persist in the program if it is working well for them.
Different types of schools had different levels of impact. Catholic schools and non-Christian religious schools had higher impacts on college enrollment than non-Catholic Christian schools and nonreligious private schools. Additionally, schools that had a larger share of FTC students and were therefore more financially dependent on the FTC program had a smaller positive effect on low-income students’ college-going rates than schools with a smaller percentage of FTC students.
Effects on degree attainment
Participation in the FTC program had only a small effect on students’ likelihood of earning a college degree. For students who entered the FTC program in elementary or middle school, there was an increase of 0.6 percentage points in associate degree attainment. There was no significant difference for students who entered the FTC program in high school. It is too early to assess the impact of the program on bachelor’s degree attainment for most students.
A fuller understanding of what these results mean for students will require continuing to track their outcomes as more progress through their education and into the workforce. As policymakers consider the design, expansion, or reform of private school choice programs, they should carefully examine not just a program’s likely impact on short-term metrics such as test scores, but also how it might shape long-term outcomes, including college enrollment and graduation.
Appendix table A.9 was updated on December 5, 2017. The numbers in the original table reflected a calculation error. Trends and conclusions, however, remain the same. Also, on page 24, we updated “appendix table A.9” to say “appendix table A.10,” and on page 25, we updated “appendix table A.10” to say “appendix table A.9” so that readers are referred to the correct tables that support our in-text claims.