In early 2017, researchers from The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) reviewed nearly 60 randomized evaluations that were designed to increase student enrollment and attendance. One study in particular looked at the impact of free uniforms for girls in low-income countries. In 2003 in Western Kenya, a school uniform cost $6. Would providing a group of underserved girls with free uniforms impact their lives and break down barriers to education?
To answer this question, a group of 6th grade girls was split into two groups. One group got free uniforms for two years and the other group continued paying for them. Five years later, researchers and an NGO were shocked by the results. Girls who had received a free uniform were 17% less likely to have dropped out of primary school; 17% less likely to become teenage mothers, and 20% less likely to have been married.
Across these studies, a clear message stood out: The perceived costs and benefits of schooling are a major factor in parents’ and students’ education decisions. When costs are high and benefits aren’t clearly understood, parents are less likely to send their kids to school, and kids are less likely to want to attend. The benefits of education come mostly in the future, but the costs are immediate and top-of-mind.
Public schools are not always free in low-income countries and school fees can cost as much as a third of a family’s income. Reducing these costs (such as providing free uniforms) can make the perceived benefits of school outweigh the immediate costs and prevent girls from dropping out, empowering them to continue their education.