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Changing the cost-benefit calculation of attending school

Slide on school participation

Evaluating school attendance

In 2001, researchers in the Dominican Republic asked eighth-grade boys what they expected to earn if they completed primary school, and what they expected to earn if they completed secondary school; more than 40% of the boys did not expect their earnings to be higher if they finished secondary school. Researchers learned that “informing boys of the average wages earned by people in their area based on education levels raised their own perceived returns to education, and that boys who received this information completed an additional 0.20 years of schooling.” 

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) bulletin, “Roll Call: Getting Children Into School,” examines 58 evaluations from 28 low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that tested programs designed to increase school enrollment and attendance from preschool through secondary school, such as the one in the Dominican Republic. On July 11, J-WEL hosted a webinar with two of J-PAL’s team members: Radhika Bhula, Policy Manager, and Meagan Neal, Senior Policy Associate.
During the webinar, Dr. Claudia Urrea, Associate Director of the pK-12 Collaborative @ J-WEL, spoke to J-PAL about their methodology, key findings from the report, and policy implications for educational transformation.


In the below clip, Radhika describes the report: 



Global education trends

Over past 15 years, there have been massive gains in primary school attendance. In 2000, only 83% of children of primary school age were enrolled in school; in 2015, 91% were enrolled. While this represents a huge increase, there are still 60 million primary school-age children who are not enrolled in school. In secondary, the problem is even larger, with 200 million children not enrolled. Girls, in particular, are less likely to be enrolled. Radhika explains: 

“Additionally, enrollment and attendance are, of course, not necessarily the same thing. And so, the Annual Status of Education Report, in 2016, in India, found that while 97% of children were enrolled in school-- they were listed on the official registers-- only about 71% were actually attending on any given day. So there seems to be some large gaps, despite these large gains in enrollment, in terms of actually getting kids to be able to attend regularly.” There are many barriers that keep children from enrolling, including school fees and the distance a child needs to travel to attend. 


Changing the cost-benefit calculation of attending school

J-PAL economists found that many of the barriers preventing kids from attending school involved a cost-benefit calculation made by students and their parents:

“So if we think about education as an investment of time, money, and effort, the cost of education-- things like school fees or uniforms are immediate. And students and parents are feeling them every day. However, the benefits of education might be much harder to perceive, and they also tend to come further in the future. And especially if parents have less education themselves, it could be difficult for them to know what all of the benefits of additional schooling might be.”

Using this framework, researchers designed interventions to lower the perceived/actual costs of attending school, through methods such as conditional cash transfers and health interventions like deworming. They also designed interventions to address the perceived/actual benefits of attending school—for example, knowledge of a future increase in earnings in the Dominican Republic. Both the webinar and the report it is based on provide high-level lessons from the evaluations, including the cost-effectiveness of different methods. For example, in Kenya, a deworming program for intestinal worms decreased absenteeism in school by about 25%. In general, programs that increased attendance and enrollment overall actually helped girls at least as much as, if not more than, boys. 


Interested readers can read “Roll Call: Getting Children Into School.” J-WEL members can also watch the full webinar.  


Additional references 

Jensen, Robert. 2010. "Impact of Information on the Returns to Education on the Demand for Schooling in the Dominican Republic." Quarterly Journal of Economics 125: 515-548.