Student Participation 

You can read about our methodology for estimating cost-effectiveness here

Achieving universal enrollment in primary school, and high attendance among those enrolled, has been a major policy focus in developing countries for the last decade. There is now considerable evidence from randomized evaluations on the effectiveness of the different strategies that have been used to promote student participation. Parents are sensitive to the cost of school and even small subsidies can improve participation. But the most cost-effective programs of those examined here are providing families with information about the higher wages earned by those who complete school, and addressing health problems such as intestinal worms and chronic anemia. So far there is little evidence that families vary their demand for schooling in response to education quality, such as more teacher attendance or a remedial curriculum, but this question has only been looked at over the shorter term.

When interpreting this cost-effectiveness, it is important to bear in mind that some programs, particularly conditional cash transfers, achieve other objectives than just improving school participation. Additionally, programs will tend to be more expensive in richer countries, not least because attendance rates tend to be higher to begin with.

Much of the public discussion about children not going to school has focused on cultural barriers to sending girls to school and on child labor. If children’s labor is crucial to their family’s welfare or cultural barriers to girls’ education are very high, it may prove very difficult to attract more children to school. However, if children contribute relatively little to the family income, even small reductions in the cost of going to school or bigger rewards to schooling (from increased school quality) could have a dramatic impact.

Major gains have been made in recent years to get young children to enroll in primary school, and almost 90 percent of children who should be in primary school are now enrolled. Many governments now offer free primary education and in other ways cut the cost of schooling. Better access to primary education has not, however, translated into similar gains in classroom attendance. The Millennium Development Goals promise to achieve universal primary education and eliminate gender disparities in education by 2015, and depend on children completing a full course of primary schooling and not just to enrolling. There are still millions of children not attending primary school, even in places where they have access to education.

Many children skip school frequently because of health conditions, and addressing these concerns can be hugely effective in reducing student absenteeism. Simple medical interventions, like deworming, and free school meals can often address health conditions, removing barriers and having important spillover effects on school attendance. Investments are also being made in various school inputs, like textbooks, flipcharts, and teachers, to improve the quality of education and therefore presumably increase the returns to education. One hoped for side effect of increasing quality is that it might make education more attractive to children from poor families, and increase school attendance rates.

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Cost-Effectiveness of Student Participation Programs

You can read about our methodology for estimating cost-effectiveness here
Evaluations Cost Effectiveness Academic Papers
Additional Years of Participation per $100 Spent
1 Information on Returns to Education, for Parents

Giving parents information on the higher wages earned by graduates prompted students to attend more regularly.

20.7 years Nguyen 2008 blue
2 Deworming Through Primary Schools

Deworming children at school decreased absenteeism by 25% and was extremely cost-effective.

13.9 years Miguel & Kremer, 2014Miguel & Kremer, 2014Miguel & Kremer, 2004 Academic blue
3 Free Primary School Uniforms

Subsidizing uniforms, a large part of school expenses, increased student attendance.

.71 year Evans, Kremer & Ngatia, 2009 Academic blue
4 Merit Scholarships for Girls

Merit scholarships for high-performing girls induced all students to attend more regularly.

.27 years Friedman et. al., 2011 Academic blue
South Asia
5 Iron Fortification and Deworming in Preschools

Children were given iron supplements and deworming pills to fight anemia, enabling them to attend school more often.

2.7 years Bobonis, Miguel & Puri-Sharma, 2006 Academic blue
6 Camera Monitoring of Teachers' Attendance

Monitoring teacher attendance with time-stamped cameras did not cause increased attendance among students.

(no significant impact) Duflo, Hanna, & Ryan, 2012 Academic blue
7 Computer-Assisted Learning Curriculum

Increasing student achievement through a computer-assisted curriculum did not increase attendance in India.

(no significant impact) Banerjee et al., 2007 Academic blue
8 Remedial Tutoring by Volunteers in India

Students did not change their attendance at school when supplementary tutoring was offered in the community.

(no significant impact) Banerjee et al., 2007 Policy blue
9 Menstrual Cups for Teenage Girls in Nepal

Teenage girls did not increase attendance at school when given free sanitary products.

(no significant impact) Oster & Thornton, 2010Oster & Thornton, 2011 Academic blue
Latin America
10 Information on Returns to Education, for Boys

Giving boys information on the higher wages earned by graduates increased their attendance at school.

3.1 years Jensen 2010 blue
11 PROGRESA CCT for Primary School Attendance

Families were given cash transfers, conditional upon their children attending primary school in Mexico.

.03 years Schultz 2000 blue

One popular approach to improving both enrollment and attendance is to reduce the costs of schooling, either by eliminating school fees or paying for necessities such as school uniforms. In Kenya, where baseline attendance was around 86%, giving free uniforms to primary school students increased daily attendance by 6.4 percentage points, raising student participation by 0.71 years per $100 spent 3.  A program which offered scholarships to cover the school fees for high-performing girls in Kenyan primary schools caused an additional 0.27 years of schooling per $100 spent 4.

In areas where school attendance and enrollment are already high, often because schools are already free, offering money to all students who regularly attend school may not be as cost-effective. In Mexico the PROGRESA program offered a series of cash grants to poor families, conditional on their children’s attendance at schools, causing significant increases in enrollment 11.  But because all poor children were subsidized, and their baseline level of attendance was already 90%, the program was quite expensive per additional year of schooling attained. Additionally, because the program was also used as a means to transfer cash to the poor, and price levels in Mexico are much higher than in a country like Kenya, the transfer cost was quite significant. It is important to note, however, that the program achieved outcomes other than student attendance, such as improving nutritional status and getting money into the hands of poor families.

Other programs seek to communicate the benefits of schooling, particularly increased wages for graduates, which families may not be aware of. In the Dominican Republic, boys were given information on how much more they could earn with a secondary school education, and they increased their attendance by 5 percentage points 10. This program was expensive to implement, because it used individual meetings with boys to communicate information and targeted only a few students within each school, for experimental purposes. However, the cost-effectiveness of this kind of program is sensitive to
the costs of gathering information on the returns to education- in
places where this information is not readily available, the program is
likely to be less cost-effective. A similar program in Madagascar also caused significant increases in attendance with a much less intensive, and thus much less expensive, program 1. All parents in primary schools were invited to attend an informational session, where they were given statistics on the average monthly earnings of local people with different levels of education. Because the only costs of this program were the one-time meeting and the parents’ time to attend, the ratio of benefits to costs was extremely high: an additional 20.7 years of education were attained for every $100 spent.

Absence can also be reduced by addressing factors that prevent children from attending school, such as health problems. Treating children for intestinal worms that can make them tired, anemic, and unable to attend school, led to an additional 13.9 years of education for every $100 spent in a small-scale experiment in Kenya 2. Recent large-scale deworming programs have cost less than 50 cents per child per year (less than the program piloted in Kenya), suggesting an even higher level of cost-effectiveness. Another program, targeting anemia, gave iron fortification to preschoolers in India, causing an additional 2.7 years of education per $100 spent 5. But it is not always obvious which health issues are the ones that are actually preventing children from attending school. In Nepal, girls reported missing only half a day of schooling per year due to menstruation, and the provision of menstrual cups to address this supposed barrier had no impact on attendance 9.

It is important to note that attendance at school is only the first step - the quality of education, including the presence of capable teachers and the use of an appropriate curriculum, is key to improving learning outcomes. Interestingly, students do not appear to change their demand for schooling in response to changes in schooling quality, at least over the short term. For instance, implementing a camera monitoring system to reduce teacher absence in India 6 and providing a computer-assisted curriculum 7 both increased learning outcomes, but these programs did not affect student attendance. The different goals, of increasing time in school and improving education quality, may require different approaches.

Why Have Our Numbers Changed?

If you are familiar with J-PAL’s earlier cost-effectiveness work on student attendance, you may have noticed that these numbers have changed slightly from previous versions of the analysis. In part, this is because prices were updated to reflect inflation. Additionally, J-PAL has been working to standardize our cost-gathering and cost-effectiveness methodology, and so in some cases small methodological adjustments have been made.

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