Private-school vouchers boost college going, but not for students in greatest need

Large differences between moderately and severely disadvantaged students

Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 18, 2021 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- For moderately disadvantaged students, using a voucher to attend a private school increases college-enrollment rates and four-year degree attainment. But vouchers have no significant effect on college going or degree attainment for the most severely disadvantaged students, Albert Cheng of the University of Arkansas and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University report in a new article for Education Next.

Education researchers typically use student eligibility for free or reduced-price school lunch as the sole indicator of socioeconomic status, yet the category is broad and fails to measure the considerable differences in economic and cultural resources among lower-income families in the United States.

Read "School Choice and 'The Truly Disadvantaged'” article.

Cheng and Peterson analyze data from a New York City school choice program that awarded vouchers by lottery for the 1997-98 school year. They compare college enrollment and degree attainment between disadvantaged African American and Hispanic American students who were offered a voucher and those who were not. Informed by research on first-generation college students, they distinguish between “moderate” and “severe” disadvantage by family income and based on whether a minority student’s mother has any education beyond high school.

Among the key findings:

  • Impact of voucher offer varies by student disadvantage. The offer of a half-tuition voucher to attend private elementary school increases college-enrollment rates by about 15 percent and four-year degree attainment by about 50 percent for minority students with mothers who have some college education or are from moderately low-income households. But a voucher offer has no significant effects for the most disadvantaged minority students, those from the lowest-income households or whose mothers have no post-high-school education.
  • Voucher use has positive effects for moderately disadvantaged students. Using a voucher to attend a private elementary school increases college enrollment by up to 30 percent and four-year degree attainment increases by nearly 70 percent. There are no significant benefits for severely disadvantaged students.

“The voucher intervention has sizeable, positive impacts for students who, while still disadvantaged by most definitions, have more cultural and financial resources at home. This resembles conclusions drawn by qualitative research, which suggest that students and families often find it difficult to take advantage of school-choice opportunities unless their cultural and material resources have reached a certain minimum,” Cheng and Peterson write.

About the Authors: Albert Cheng is assistant professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions. Paul E. Peterson, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University, directs the Program on Education Policy and Governance and is senior editor of Education Next.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit



Figure: Voucher Use Has Positive Effects for Moderately Disadvantaged Students. 

Using a voucher to attend a private elementary school increases college enrollment and attainment for moderately disadvantaged minority students, as measured by their mother’s level of education or household income. There are no significant benefits for severely disadvantaged students.

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