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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Essays on School Choice and the Returns to School Quality

  • Author(s): Ajayi, Kehinde Funmilola
  • Advisor(s): Card, David
  • et al.

This dissertation consists of three studies which collectively seek to examine: what the barriers are to receiving a high-quality education in a merit-based school choice setting; how policy reforms can address these barriers; and what benefits students gain from attending a high-quality school. Altogether, the papers focus on understanding the role of socio-economic background in explaining differences in education-related decisions and student outcomes.

Chapter 2 examines whether school choice programs increase opportunities for educational mobility or reinforce initial disparities in schooling. I address this question in the context of the public education system in Ghana, which uses standardized tests and a nation-wide application process to allocate 150,000 elementary school students to 650 secondary schools. As has been found in other settings, students from lower-performing elementary schools in Ghana apply to less selective secondary schools than students with the same test scores from higher-performing elementary schools. I consider four potential explanations for this behavior: differences in decision-making quality, imperfect information about admission chances, costs and accessibility of schooling, and preferences for school quality. I use detailed data from three cohorts of applicants to evaluate the relative importance of these explanations. My analysis suggests that differences in application behavior are largely due to poor decision-making and incorrect beliefs about admission chances, rather than differences in preferences or the costs and accessibility of schools.

Building on the theoretical framework outlined in the preceding analysis, Chapter 3 evaluates the impact of institutional reforms in school choice settings. Focusing again on the case of Ghana, I estimate the effects of a series of reforms in the application process that expanded the number of choices students could list and encouraged students to select a diversified portfolio of schools. I use a difference-in-differences approach to analyze the effect of each reform and find that both reforms decreased the difference in selectivity of schools chosen by students from high-performing and low-performing elementary schools, which suggests that application and admission rules play a significant role in explaining differences in application behavior. Moreover, these results are consistent with a setting in which imperfect information has a strong impact on students' choices and the effects can both be explained as a consequence of uncertainty in the Ghanaian choice system.

Chapter 4 uses a unique dataset on Ghana's education system to examine the effect of school quality on student outcomes. My analysis draws on exogenous variation in student assignment due to the fact that admission of elementary school students into secondary school in 2005 was based on students' ranking of their three most preferred choices and their performance on a standardized test. I compare students on different sides of the cutoff for admission to their lowest-ranked choice and find that students who are not admitted to their chosen school are assigned to schools of lower-quality and are less likely to complete secondary school. Additionally, these students are more likely to transfer out of their initially-assigned schools. However, those who do complete secondary school do not perform any worse on the exit exam several years later. Thus, students' behavioral responses to their admission outcomes appear to moderate the effects of school quality on educational attainment in this context.

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