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Information, Student-Parent Communication, and Secondary School Choice

This post, written by Stephanie Bonds, a 6th year PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, describes the results of an informational intervention for Kenyan students and parents, as part of a CEGA supported project. Bonds is on the job market in the 2021–2022 academic year.

Student-Parent-Teacher Meeting in Busia, Kenya | Stephanie Bonds

While primary school completion rates in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have increased recently, secondary school completion rates remain low. This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, while 80% of students finish primary school in Kenya, only 45% go on to finish secondary school. Secondary school completion is a key education milestone with substantial positive effects on economic, health, and social outcomes. Therefore, understanding and addressing factors that could lead to students dropping out of secondary school can be crucial for poverty alleviation.

Completion rates are influenced by the choice of school — a school that is too far to commute to, not a good fit academically, or too expensive can increase the likelihood of students dropping out. However, in many contexts, households make schooling decisions without much information about schools. These information gaps can be exacerbated if the student and parent do not communicate about their preferences and constraints before applying to schools. While some studies have shown that information gaps about school characteristics during the application process can lead to student-school mismatches, there is little if any evidence that highlights the role of student-parent communication in this space. For example, if students don’t communicate with parents about financial constraints before applying to secondary schools, students might end up choosing schools that are too expensive.

In my job market paper, I study the importance of both information and communication gaps in secondary school choices via a field experiment with 3,000 Kenyan students and their parents. I find that informational meetings with students led them to apply to more commutable schools without compromising school performance. Including the parents in these meetings improved parental knowledge about costs and led to better alignment of school preferences between the students and their parents. This ultimately led students to enroll in lower-cost schools, particularly for low-income households.

Secondary School Application in Kenya

The transition from primary to secondary school in Kenya starts from the beginning of 8th grade. Students first fill in an application that requires them to choose eleven secondary schools out of several hundred options that vary in performance, location, and cost. Next, they take an entrance exam that determines admission to secondary school. Finally, once students receive admission offers, households choose which school to enroll in, if any.

Baseline surveys reveal that students face significant information and communication gaps at the beginning of this process. For example, only 40% of parents know the costs of schools (within a 100 USD range), and less than 20% of students know which day schools are commutable from home. Further, parents know less than one-third of the schools their child applied to, on average. These gaps can lead students to apply to schools that are poor matches. Since students can only apply to a limited number of schools and are locked into these choices early on, these information and communication gaps are costly.

The Experiment

To address these information and communication gaps, I designed an informational intervention based on detailed piloting and in collaboration with the Busia County Department of Education. The information provided included maps showing the location of secondary schools along with information about distance to school, school fees, and average academic performance. Each meeting was led by a trained enumerator under supervision of a school teacher.

The intervention randomized individual information meetings for 8th grade students across 183 schools, with twenty students selected from each school. To study the role of parent-child communication gaps, I further randomized whether a parent participated in the meeting for a facilitated conversation with the student. My study sample was thus divided into the following three groups:

  1. Group 1 (Student-Teacher Meeting): Students and parents were surveyed and students participated in the informational meeting.
  2. Group 2 (Student-Teacher-Parent Meeting): Students and parents were surveyed and both students and their parents participated in the informational meeting.
  3. Group 3 (Status Quo): Students and parents were surveyed, but did not participate in the meeting.

I collected student and parent survey data on knowledge, preferences, and enrollment in three rounds. I linked this survey data to administrative records on final application choices, attendance, and test scores, in order to measure the effects of the intervention on key educational outcomes of interest.

Results

The experiment produced four key findings:

Finding #1: Meetings improved student and parent knowledge about school choices

Informational meetings improved objective knowledge about the application process and schooling costs, confirming that the intervention successfully addressed informational gaps for both students and parents.

Finding #2: Meetings improved student and parent alignment

When parents were included in meetings, students and parents learned about each other’s preferences, which led to increased alignment of preferences by 60 percent.

Finding #3: Meetings led students to apply to closer schools in both groups

Meetings led students to apply to more commutable schools, with a 40 percent increase in the proportion of students that applied to day schools within a 7km radius. Further, when parents attended meetings, students were more likely to enroll in a day school. These distance savings come at no cost to performance of the school, as measured by average test score.

Finding #4: When parents attended meetings, students ultimately enrolled in lower-cost schools

When parents attended meetings, households paid 18 USD less in tuition each year overall (17 percent of average monthly earnings in the sample), driven by the shift into local day schools. This is even larger for below median income households who saved 29 USD per year. Considering that parents must pay secondary school fees across four years for all of their children, these cost-savings over time can be substantial.

Policy Implications

Informational meetings with students and parents about secondary school choices address information and communication gaps during the secondary school process, and lead to students enrolling in lower-cost schools. Teacher meetings are low-cost and scalable, as informational content such as maps can be generated and distributed across schools. Following the completion of the study, we intend to work with the Busia County Department of Education to disseminate this information more widely. In future work, I plan to track academic outcomes for the students in my sample to study how making a more informed school choice can impact secondary school academic achievement and eventual secondary school completion.

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The CEGA blog is a platform for discussing key issues related to poverty alleviation and global development.

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