Academic journal article Education Next

Incentives to Learn: Merit Scholarships That Pay Kids to Do Well

Academic journal article Education Next

Incentives to Learn: Merit Scholarships That Pay Kids to Do Well

Article excerpt

Proposals for education reform generally focus on teachers and curricula. But the most important factor in education may be the student himself or herself. A growing number of states, including Georgia, Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts, have established programs that provide financial rewards in the form of merit scholarships for college for students who perform well academically. However, such programs are controversial with some educators, and the structure of many existing programs in the United States makes it difficult to evaluate rigorously the impact of such incentive programs because it is hard to identify for comparison a credible group of students who were not eligible for the program.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Examining the experiences of programs outside the United States may well be informative in helping to understand the impact of incentives for students. We collected evidence from a program in Kenya, in which girls in public schools who performed well were offered merit scholarships that covered the cost of the fees charged by public schools at the time. Their families were offered grants to help cover the cost of school supplies. The program was implemented by a nonprofit organization, which phased it into a number of schools in random order, allowing us to compare schools that were eligible for the program with other schools where the program had not yet been introduced. The results of our evaluation, conducted in 2001 and 2002, indicate that the program significantly improved the test scores of girls. Moreover, the program had salutary spillover effects: test scores of students who were not eligible for--or had no hope of earning--the award also improved, as did school attendance for both students and teachers.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A Deficit of Data on Merit Scholarships

Prior to our study, we had little information on the value of using scholarships as incentives to learn. One of the few existing sources of evidence in the United States is Georgia's HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) scholarship program, which awards college scholarships to high school students who graduate with at least a B average and attend college in-state. After the program was introduced in 1993, the average SAT score for the Peach State's high school seniors rose almost 40 points. But since all students in the state were eligible, there was no way of determining, with a reliable degree of certainty, whether factors other than the scholarship had also contributed to the outcomes.

Outside the United States, a randomized study among high school students in Israel conducted by economists Joshua Angrist of MIT and Victor Lavy of Hebrew University found that students eligible for cash awards for good performance were 6 to 8 percentage points more likely to pass their matriculation exams than other students in the same school.

The opportunity to evaluate the Kenyan program has enabled us to address many of the problems of earlier research on merit scholarships. Because the schools participating in the Kenyan scholarship program were randomly selected, we could credibly identify its effects. We were also able to collect data on student and teacher attendance, purchases of school supplies, students' use of time, and a range of student attitudes about school that allowed us to explore the mechanisms by which merit scholarships affect schooling. Finally, as this same region in Kenya has been the site of randomized evaluations of several other education interventions, we can compare the cost-effectiveness of the scholarship program with alternative programs such as those that provide textbooks to students or performance-based incentives for teachers.

Remarkably, we found little evidence to support the common criticisms of merit scholarships. The Kenyan program, for instance, did not appear to have led students to focus on test performance at the expense of other dimensions of learning. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.