School vouchers: Cost-effective college enrollment boost; grad rates remain low

School vouchers and tax credit scholarships may not always improve participants’ standardized test performance, but a growing crop of studies suggest they are cost-effective when it comes to encouraging economically disadvantaged students to pursue a college education.

Two recent Urban Institute studies, one on Milwaukee and the other on Washington, D.C., continue that trend. The reports follow similar results from a 2017 Urban Institute study of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

Students in Milwaukee using vouchers to attend private schools were more likely to attend college, while students in Washington were no more or less likely, to attend college than their public-school peers. Past Urban Institute research in Florida showed modest positive college attendance and associate degree gains among school choice participants.

Researchers Patrick Wolf, John Witte and Brian Kisida found Milwaukee voucher students were 6 percentage points more likely to attend a four-year college than their public school peers. Milwaukee choice students were 1-2 percentage points more likely to graduate college, but that difference was not statistically significant.

The researchers conclude, “students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program tend to have higher levels of many measures of educational attainment than a carefully matched comparison of Milwaukee Public School students.”

Scholarship students in the nation’s capital did not fare as well. Although D.C. voucher students were 3 points less likely to attend a four-year college, researcher Matthew Chingos, said the difference was not statistically significant.

“Students who won a scholarship to attend a private school in Washington, D.C. enrolled in similar types of colleges at similar rates as students who were not offered a private school voucher,” Chingos wrote.

Like Milwaukee, D.C. voucher students also saw no difference in college degree attainment. However, Chingos also noted that the D.C. scholarship value of $9,700 in 2017 dollars was less than half the per-pupil spending of D.C. public schools. Scholarship values in Milwaukee and Florida are also lower than per-pupil spending in their respective state public schools.

Last year, the Urban Institute found scholarship students in Florida were up to 6 points more likely to attend college, with most of that impact stemming from community college enrollment. Florida’s scholarship students were also more likely to obtain an associates degree than their public school peers.

Students who use Florida tax credit scholarships are more likely to enroll in college. Chart by Urban Institute. *Means results are statistically significant.

While school voucher supporters and opponents will continue to debate the short- and long-term impact of school choice programs, one troubling statistic should cut through that noise: the persistently poor college graduation rates among low-income students regardless of what type of K-12 school they attend. College graduation rates among low-income students stand in the teens, suggesting that more work needs to be done at all levels of education to provide these students the support they need to succeed.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.