Facilitating better high school choice

New York City’s high school choice program can be, depending on your perspective, refreshing or daunting. When it comes time to choose where they want to spend (hopefully) the next four years, every eighth grader in the nation’s largest school system gets a 600-page school directory enumerating over 700 high schools and program options, before submitting an application ranking up to twelve choices. In theory, this kind of education agora should create all manner of opportunities for students to ferret out just the right high school. But low-income, black, and Hispanic residents and those who do not speak English at home have proven more likely to choose and/or be assigned to high schools with lower graduation rates. Could a targeted intervention in the form of simplified information about school options bring order to chaos and enhance “match”? The short answer appears to be “yes” based on an experiment conducted by New York University economics and education policy professor Sean P. Corcoran and his co-authors, Jennifer Jennings of Princeton, Sarah Cohodes of Columbia, and Seton Hall’s Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj.

The four conducted a randomized field experiment in 165 high-poverty New York City middle schools during the 2015–16 school year, in which students in some schools received custom lists of thirty high schools with graduation rates north of 70 percent within a forty-five minute ride on the city’s buses or subways. Students who received the custom lists were more likely to apply to specific high school recommended on the lists than students who did not receive them; and those who received the custom lists were also more likely to receive their first choice high school and less likely to match to a high school with a graduation rate below 70 percent (they had higher odds of admission, and they avoided lower-performing schools on their application).

It’s not a huge surprise that better information leads to more informed and targeted choice. But the authors sound a cautionary note about whether their intervention can reduce inequality. If the assumption is that advantaged students are already near a ceiling of information, so disadvantaged groups have more to gain, then that appears not to be supported by the experiment. “Both disadvantaged and advantaged students used the custom lists to make choices,” the authors note, but in some instances advantaged students “saw greater benefits” by applying and matching to more schools on the researchers’ custom lists.

“Taken together, our findings demonstrate that proving simplified and customized information to middle school students can increase the quality of the schools to which they match. Beyond simply inducing students to apply to higher-performing schools, these supports should help students identify schools where their odds of admission are higher,” the authors conclude. They note several important limitations to their experiment. The “custom lists” of schools were customized at the school level, not the student level. “More personalized information could potentially elicit greater usage and impact,” they say.

SOURCE: Sean P. Corcoran et al., “Leveling the Playing Field for High School Choice: Results from a Field Experiment of Informational Interventions,” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2018).

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.