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LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Bianca Gutierrez, 16, from New Design Charter School, and her classmates attend Cash for College, a college and career convention, at the Los Angeles Convention Center on December 8, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 08: Bianca Gutierrez, 16, from New Design Charter School, and her classmates attend Cash for College, a college and career convention, at the Los Angeles Convention Center on December 8, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)  

New research: School choice has positive impact on college achievement gap

Photo of Alexis Levinson
Alexis Levinson
Political Reporter

As U.S. politicians continue to debate the merits of allowing parents to choose their children’s schools, research financed by the Department of Education has found that school choice programs significantly improve the future educational prospects of children who might otherwise attend lower quality schools.

On Monday the National Bureau of Economic Research released a working paper written by Harvard, Dartmouth and Brown University researchers, providing “the first evidence of the impact of school choice on the college achievement gap.”

The researchers, two economists and two education policy experts, looked at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina and the effect of their school choice program “on college matriculation and degree completion.”

“CMS implemented an open enrollment public school choice program in the Fall of 2002,” says the paper. “Students were guaranteed admission to their neighborhood school but were allowed to choose and rank up to three other schools in the district, including magnet schools. When demand for school slots exceeded supply, allocation was determined by lottery.”

Of the eight public schools in that district, the researchers ranked four as “low quality” and four as “high quality.” Students who lived in a neighborhood where the nearest school was low quality, but who won a lottery to attend a high quality school, were “more likely than lottery losers to graduate from high school, attend a four-year college, and earn a bachelor’s degree.

“They are twice as likely to earn a degree from an elite university. The results suggest that school choice can improve students’ longer-term life chances when they gain access to schools that are better on observed dimensions of quality.” (RELATED: Rubio: ‘No Child Left Behind’ waivers are illegal)

The authors noted that these results are not just due to better college application resources at the high quality schools. Instead, they are “consistent with real gains in college preparedness … Attending a better high school increases long-run educational attainment primarily through improved preparation for college-level coursework.”

Lottery winners, in turn, are “more likely to attend a very competitive college.”

These effects, they add, are larger among female students. “Girls who win the lottery are about 7 percentage points more likely to attend a four year college,” the paper concludes.

And part of the impact of school choice programs is the partial closure of racial disparities in educational achievement. The effect of winning a school-choice lottery was to eliminate “nearly 75 percent of the black-white gap in high school graduation and 25 percent of the gap in bachelor’s degree completion.”

“This shows,” the researchers write, “that improving the quality of urban high schools, while difficult to accomplish in practice, would lessen racial and socioeconomic inequality and generate potentially large gains in the stock of college-educated labor. “

The effect of attending a high quality school is also evident in previously low-performing students’ success in high school. “Lottery winners from low-quality neighborhood schools had significantly higher grade point averages overall and in math and science courses,” the authors write, “and they took more math courses overall. They also had significantly fewer absences from school in the first school year after the lottery.”

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