Research & Commentary: New Report Details College Enrollment Boost for Students in Milwaukee and Florida School Choice Programs

Published July 29, 2019

A new report from the Urban Institute updates previous results and finds students in school choice programs in Florida and Milwaukee, Wisconsin are more likely to attend and, graduate four-year colleges and universities than their peers in traditional public schools.

“Educational attainment—including graduation from high school and enrollment and persistence in college—may be the most consequential outcome for individual students and their surrounding communities over the long term,” the report states. “Students with higher levels of attainment live longer, lead healthier lives, earn more income, and avoid welfare and the criminal justice system at higher rates than their peers with lower levels of attainment.”

Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), the largest private school choice program in the country with more than 108,000 participating students, has been the subject of previous studies by the Urban Institute in 2017 and earlier in 2019. Although this study does not provide any new data for FTC, it does reiterate the findings of those earlier studies: children who enroll in FTC in elementary and middle school are 12 percent more likely to attend college than their public school peers, while those who enroll in FTC in high school are 19 percent more likely to attend college than their public school peers. Students enrolled in FTC in elementary and middle school were about 10 percent more likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree than their public school peers. This number rose to about 20 percent more likely for those entering FTC in high school. Unsurprisingly, 92 percent of FTC parents are satisfied with the program.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), established in 1990, is the country’s first school voucher program, with about 29,000 children currently participating. The Urban report found ninth-grade MPCP students were 7 percent more likely to enroll in college than their public school peers. Students starting MPCP in grades 3–8 were 11 percent more likely to enroll in college than their public school peers. The grade 3–8 MPCP students were also 38 percent more likely to graduate college than their public school peers.

A separate 2019 report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty finds MPCP schools had proficiency rates 4.65 percent higher in English language arts and 3.95 percent in math, respectively, than Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Another 2019 study, published in Social Science Quarterly, showed persistent, long-term participation in MPCP can lead to decreased criminal activity for Milwaukee children later in life. Also, high school students participating in MPCP have lower levels of criminality than their MPS peers, and MPCP students are expected to generate almost $475 million in additional economic benefits “associated with higher graduation rates” from 2016 to 2035.

The Urban report also looked at the federally-funded DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), a voucher program for District of Columbia students and found statistically insignificant results for OSP students compared to their public school peers. However, OSP schools are producing similar academic results to DC Public Schools while doing so with far fewer funds. Moreover, research on OSP by the Institute for Education Sciences shows students making use of the program were 27 percent less likely to be chronically absent after three years. Student satisfaction with their schools also increased 18 percent over this period. These results came at a third of the cost to educate a child in a traditional DC public school.

Copious empirical research on school choice programs shows they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. Students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

Based on the empirical evidence showing the academic and societal benefits of education choice, legislators should expand existing school choice programs or establish new programs that seek to provide access to high-quality schools to as many children as possible.

The following documents provide more information about education choice.

The Effects of Means-Tested Private School Choice Programs on College Enrollment and Graduation
This Urban Institute report evaluates how well school choice programs in Florida, Milwaukee, and the District of Columbia prepare students for college by examining college enrollment and completion data. 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. 

The Effects of Statewide Private School Choice on College Enrollment and Graduation: Evidence from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
This study from Urban Institute scholars Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn shows Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program boosted college enrollment for participating students by 15 percent, with students enrolled in the program for four or more years seeing a 46 percent hike.

The 123s of School Choice
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

2018 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent and Teacher Experiences, Accountability, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

Fiscal Effects of School Vouchers: Examining the Savings and Costs of America’s Private School Voucher Programs
In this EdChoice study, Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis Martin F. Lueken examined the fiscal impact of voucher programs across America—from their inception through fiscal year 2015—to determine whether they generated costs or savings for state and local taxpayers. Lueken found these programs generated cumulative net savings to state and local budgets of $3.2 billion. This represents a $3,400 savings per voucher recipient.

The Tax Credit Scholarship Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money?
In this audit, EdChoice Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis Martin Lueken updates previous work examining the fiscal effects of private school choice programs on state governments, state and local taxpayers, and school districts. Lueken’s report analyzes savings from tax credit scholarship programs, which allow individuals and businesses to reduce their state tax liability by making a private donation to a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships for children to attend private schools of their choice. This audit looks at 10 tax credit scholarship programs operating in seven states between 1997 and 2014. These 10 programs serve 93 percent of all students participating in tax credit scholarship programs nationwide.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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