Improving Student Participation

Which programs most effectively get children into school?

Students in class in Mexico. (©Foundation Escalera)

Achieving universal enrollment in primary school, and high attendance among those enrolled, has been a major policy focus in developing countries for the last few decades. We used the results of randomized evaluations of 13 programs to calculate the relative cost-effectiveness of alternative approaches to improving student attendance. Our cost-effectiveness analysis found that parents are sensitive to the cost of school, and even small subsidies can improve participation. But the most cost-effective approaches addressed health problems such as intestinal worms and chronic anemia. So far there is little evidence that efforts to improve education quality, such as increasing teacher attendance or offering remedial curriculum, consistently affect student attendance, but this question has only been looked at over the shorter term.

Parents are sensitive to cost, and even small subsidies can improve participation.

Eliminating school fees or paying for necessities such as school uniforms increases enrollment and attendance. In Kenya, where baseline attendance was around 86 percent, giving free uniforms to primary school students (2, see our Cost-Effectiveness Analysis below) increased daily attendance by 6.4 percentage points, raising student participation by 0.71 years per $100 spent. A program which offered scholarships to cover the school fees for high-performing girls in Kenyan primary schools (3, see CEA below) motivated a wide range of children to attend more and caused an additional 0.27 years of schooling per $100 spent.

In areas where school attendance and enrollment are already high, offering money to all students who regularly attend school may not be as cost-effective an approach to improving attendance but it has other benefits. 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. Because all poor children were subsidized, and their baseline level of attendance was already 90 percent, the program was quite expensive per additional year of schooling attained. 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.

Providing information about the higher wages earned by those who complete school can increase attendance.

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. 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.

Addressing health problems such as intestinal worms and chronic anemia is a cost-effective way of getting more children in schools.

Absence can also be reduced by addressing factors that prevent children from attending school, such as health problems. Treating children for intestinal worms (1, see CEA below) led to an additional 13.9 years of education for every $100 spent in a small-scale experiment in Kenya. 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, (5, see CEA below) led to an additional 2.7 years of education per $100 spent. 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.

There is little evidence that improving education quality increases attendance.

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 (8, see CEA below) and providing a computer-assisted curriculum (9, see CEA below) 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.

Cost-Effectiveness Analysis: Additional years of student participation per $100

A cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) calculates the ratio of the amount of effect a program achieves for a given amount of cost incurred (e.g. the extra years of schooling induced per US$100 spent on a program). CEAs are one of many tools that can serve as starting point when making policy decisions by highlighting the types of programs that tend to be the most cost-effective.

When interpreting this cost-effectiveness analysis, please bear in mind that some programs, particularly conditional cash transfers, achieve more than just improving school attendance. Additionally, programs tend to be more expensive in richer countries, not least because attendance rates tend to be higher to begin with. Furthermore, programs are grouped by regions so that comparisons are not be complicated by large disparities in price levels or characteristics across countries in different regions of the world. Regional differences in prices and baseline levels of attendance and enrollment can impact programs’ cost-effectiveness. However, examining various types of programs across regions provides guidance on which program models tend to be the most cost-effective in general.