School Voucher Kids More Likely to Graduate From College, Study Says

New research on nation's longest-running school voucher program

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A long-running voucher program boosted college graduation rates among low-income students, a recently released study shows, providing powerful evidence for the continuing positive effects of voucher-based approaches to education.

The study, a collaboration between two researchers at the University of Arkansas and one at the University of Missouri, examines data from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the oldest voucher program in the United States. First enacted in 1990, the MPCP offers private school vouchers to low-income Milwaukee kids using a lottery system. Just 341 students participated in the program's first year. Today, that figure is nearly 30,000 across 126 public schools.

Because it has been running for so long, the MPCP has been widely studied. Past analyses have found that it increases math scores (although not reading), as well as high-school graduation and college enrollment rates. Other voucher experiments have also shown encouraging results: A 2013 study found that Washington, D.C.'s voucher program increased graduation rates by 21 percentage points, while a 2015 analysis of New York's voucher system saw an increase in college enrollment among students with black mothers.

The authors of the new paper looked at data on students from elementary school through ninth grade who were enrolled in Milwaukee private schools in 2006. They identified 2,727 MPCP students, then used a detailed methodology to "match" them to comparable students in the Milwaukee Public School system based on where they lived, their demographic information, their parents' educational backgrounds, and other controls.

Having constructed their "treatment" and "control" groups, the researchers then looked at how each group faired in relation to pivotal achievement milestones: completing high school, ever enrolling in college, completing at least a year of college, and graduating from college.

The results indicate that in many domains, the MPCP students enjoyed a distinct advantage over comparable MPS students.

"MPCP students are more likely to enroll, persist, and have more total years in a four-year college than their MPS peers," the authors write. "We also find evidence that MPCP students are significantly more likely to graduate from college, although that college completion finding is only statistically significant in our sample of students who entered the program in third through eighth grade."

Specifically, MPCP students who were in ninth grade in 2006 were 6 percentage points more likely than their MPS peers to enroll in a four-year college—46 percent versus 40 percent. MPCP students who were in third through eighth grades were 4 percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and 3 percentage points more likely to graduate (all effects statistically significant).

These results contribute to what the authors call "a growing body of evaluation results indicating that private school voucher programs positively affect student educational attainment." They point in particular to a Florida program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the effects of which on graduation are "nearly identical."

"The collective evidence in this paper indicates that students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program tend to have higher levels of educational attainment than a carefully matched comparison group of Milwaukee Public School students," the authors conclude. "The MPCP students are more likely to enroll, persist, and experience more total years in a four-year college."