Research & Commentary: School Choice Programs and Their Effect on College Enrollment

Published March 19, 2018

Two studies released in February 2018 by the Urban Institute examine the effects school voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington, DC are having on college enrollment.

The authors of Do Voucher Students Attain Higher Levels of Education? Extended Evidence from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program found elementary school students participating in the titular program are 9 percent more likely to enroll in college than their public school peers, while high school students are 16 percent more likely to enroll in college than their public school peers.

Launched in 1990, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is the oldest modern voucher program in the country and has more than 28,000 participating students. The study tracked MPCP and Milwaukee Public Schools students over an 11-year period, beginning in 2006.

“The collective evidence in this paper indicates students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program tend to have higher levels of many measures of educational attainment than a carefully matched comparison group of Milwaukee Public School students,” wrote authors Patrick J. Wolf, John F. Witte, and Brian Kisida. “Our findings contribute to a growing body of social science results indicating that private school voucher programs positively affect student educational attainment.”

The second study, titled The Effect of the DC School Voucher Program on College Enrollment, shows students enrolled in the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) “were not significantly more or less likely to enroll in college than students who did not win a scholarship.” The study compared college enrollment rates for students who won an OSP scholarship in 2004 and 2005 with students who applied for a scholarship and did not win one.

However, author Matthew Chingos notes the study has “a number of limitations.”

“A necessary drawback of examining longer-term outcomes is that they reflect the experiences of earlier cohorts of students. Results for more-recent participants (which will not be measurable for many years) may differ because of changes in the voucher program or changes in the public-school system,” Chingos wrote. “The large and growing charter sector also complicates the interpretation of the results, as there are many students in both the treatment and control groups who attend public schools of choice. The share of DC public school students enrolled in charters has grown from less than 20 percent when OSP was launched to more than 40 percent today.”

A previous study in this series published in September 2017 found participation in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), the largest school choice program in the country, is associated with a 15 percent increase in college enrollment. Of students who participated in FTC for at least four years, the college enrollment rate is estimated to be 46 percent higher than their non-FTC peers. The study compared 10,000 students who participated in FTC at some point in their academic careers between 2004 and 2010.

“Our study shows that private school choice can make a difference for disadvantaged students,” wrote authors Chingos and Daniel Kuehn. “Students in the FTC program, despite coming from low-income families, enrolled in Florida public colleges at almost the same rates as the average student in Florida, regardless of income. The FTC program was particularly beneficial for students born outside the US, although all student demographic groups we examined benefited from the program.”

The overwhelming majority of the available empirical evidence makes it clear educational choice offers families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires, and it does so at a lower cost while simultaneously benefitting public school students and taxpayers, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. When parents are given the opportunity to choose, every school—public, charter, and private—must compete and improve, which gives more children the opportunity to attend a quality school. Creating or expanding school choice programs should be a priority of policymakers around the country.

The following documents provide more information on school choice.

Do Voucher Students Attain Higher Levels of Education? Extended Evidence from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
This study by Patrick J. Wolf, John F. Witte, and Brian Kisida for the Urban Institute shows that students that attended private schools in 2006 through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program generally enrolled in college at higher rates and persisted in college longer than similar students at public schools. 

The Effect of the DC School Voucher Program on College Enrollment
This study from Urban Institute scholar Matthew Chingos shows students who receive a school choice voucher, which are awarded via lottery, from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program are neither more nor less likely to enroll in college than students who did not win the scholarship, although the author acknowledges it will take many years to see if more recent cohorts perform better or worse than those students examined in this study.

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.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

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.

Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
This Heartland Institute booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2018 and beyond in the areas of budget and taxes, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions identified are proven reform ideas that have garnered significant support among the states and with legislators.

2017 Schooling in America: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent Experiences, School Choice, and the Role of the Federal Government
This annual EdChoice survey, 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.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examined the effect that increased access to private schooling has on international student test scores in 52 countries around the world, finding that a 1 percentage point increase in the private share of total primary schooling enrollment would lead to moderate increases in student math, reading, and science achievement within nations.

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.


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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