Leveling the School Choice Playing Field in NYC

Leveling the School Choice Playing Field in NYC

School choice policies aim to reduce inequality in educational outcomes by allowing families to access schools outside their own neighborhood. For this aim to be realized, however, families need information and resources to identify, apply, and gain admission to high-performing schools. Prior research has found that disadvantaged families are more likely to lack these resources and make systematically different choices than their more advantaged counterparts.

Since 2014, the NYC High School Admissions Study—led by a multidisciplinary team from the fields of economics (Sean Corcoran, NYU Steinhardt), sociology (Jennifer Jennings, Princeton University), education (Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, Seton Hall University) and public policy (Sarah Cohodes, Teachers College Columbia University)—has been developing, implementing, and evaluating informational interventions designed to help students make more informed school choices. The goal of these interventions is for disadvantaged students to choose and enroll in higher-performing schools, reducing educational inequality. This work, funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation, Heckscher Foundation for Children, and the Institute of Human Development and Social Change, has involved analyses of historical data on high school choices in NYC, surveys and interviews with guidance counselors, parents, and middle schoolers, and field experiments in over 400 middle schools.

High School Choice in NYC

In New York City, every 8th grader is required to submit an application ranking up to 12 high school choices. The sheer number of options—more than 750 academic programs in 440 high schools citywide—is daunting. Adding another layer of complexity, programs vary in their admissions methods and priorities, which affect a student’s odds of admission to each school. Academically screened programs consider grades, test scores, attendance, and other criteria, while non-screened programs prioritize residential location or attendance at a school fair or open house.

Our analysis of high school applications in NYC finds that disadvantaged students—including free lunch eligible, Black and Hispanic, and students who do not speak English at home—are more likely to choose and subsequently match (be assigned) to high schools with lower graduation rates. This pattern partly reflects residential segregation, geographic accessibility to quality schools, and gaps in prior achievement which affect access to academically screened schools. However, if complexity and lack of information are part of the explanation for the gaps we observe, simple and customized information about choices and the process itself may help level the playing field.

Our Informational Interventions

Following a pilot study in 2014-15, we conducted a randomized experiment in 165 high-poverty NYC middle schools during the 2015-16 school year. These schools collectively serve nearly 20,000 8th graders. The experiment assigned participating schools to a control group or to one of three intervention groups. All intervention groups received a custom list (called “Fast Facts”) of 30 high schools with a graduation rate of 70% or higher and within 45 minutes by public transportation from the middle school. Two of the groups also received supplemental lists highlighting academically non-selective high schools or high schools organized by interest area. The former was invited to sign up for text message reminders of open houses and information sessions where attendance would provide admissions priority to the student.

In 2016-17 and 2017-18, we expanded the experiment to more than 400 NYC middle schools. In these years, we delivered toolkits to school counselors that included variations on Fast Facts, links to web resources, as well as printed materials for counselors and 8th grade students and their parents.

Evidence of Impact

Early this month, results from our 2015-16 field experiment were released as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Leveling the Playing Field for High School Choice: Results from a Field Experiment of Informational Intervention.” An Executive Summary can be found here. In brief, we find that:

  1. Students who received our custom lists used them when making choices. On average, they were more likely to apply to our specific high school recommendations than students who did not receive our lists.
  2. Students who received our custom lists were more likely to receive their first-choice high school and were less likely to match to a high school with a graduation rate below 70%. Rather than applying to higher graduation rate schools, students were more likely to apply to higher-performing schools where their odds of admission were higher, and to avoid lower-performing schools.
  3. Both disadvantaged and advantaged students used our lists to make choices. However, in some cases, advantaged students saw greater benefits from them, by applying and matching to more schools on our custom lists.

Early Lessons

Taken together, our findings show that providing simplified and customized information to middle school students can increase the quality of 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. They should also focus students’ attention toward higher graduation rate schools and away from very low-performing schools. At the same time, broad-based informational interventions will not necessarily reduce educational inequality, since both disadvantaged and advantaged students respond and benefit from them.

For more information about the researchers and the broader study, visit our website at www.nychighschooladmissionstudy.com.


Sean P. Corcoran is an Associate Professor of Economics and Education Policy at NYU Steinhardt and an IHDSC faculty affiliate. Stewart Burns Wade is Project Director of the NYC High School Admissions Study and a graduate of NYU’s master’s program in Sociology of Education.