Primary school enrollment has risen in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past two decades, but secondary school enrollment rates remain relatively low. In this ongoing study in Ghana, researchers are evaluating the effect of secondary school scholarships on educational attainment and cognitive skills in the short run, and on life outcomes in the longer run, from employment and health outcomes to civic participation and attitudes. Results thus far show that cost was a key barrier to secondary school enrollment among middle school graduates, and full scholarships increased young people’s educational attainment, knowledge, and skills. For girls, secondary schooling also produced economic gains, as well as delays in marriage and pregnancy. Researchers will continue to track participants to 2020 and beyond.

Policy Issue 

While primary school completion rates have increased dramatically across Sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, secondary school enrollment remains low. In 2009, the region’s secondary enrollment ratio was the lowest in the world at 43 percent. Although there is an increasing focus on expanding access to secondary education in the region, there are still open questions about the benefits of secondary education relative to the high associated costs. The role of primary education as an important driver of growth and development has been well studied and understood, but there is very little evidence of the benefits of secondary education. Secondary education could have a much larger impact than primary education on long-term earnings, health, fertility, gender equality, and civic and political participation. However, expanding secondary education is also significantly more expensive than providing free primary education, and there is potentially a much larger opportunity cost to families in terms of taking students out of the workforce. This study is examining the impacts of lowering the financial barriers to secondary school enrollment and the returns to secondary education on a vast array of long-term outcomes.

Context of the Evaluation 

In Ghana, like in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, education is free through ninth grade (the last year of “junior high school”), and enrollment rates are high up to that point. After ninth grade, gross enrollment rate drops by around 50 percentage points, a pattern seen across the continent. The direct costs of fees and materials are around US$450 for four years of senior secondary school.

The impact and cost-effectiveness of expanding secondary schooling is a topic of national concern in Ghana. In recent years, the two major political parties parties have debated the merits and feasibility of implementing universal free senior high school. During the last major political campaign, however, there was limited information on what the actual benefits of secondary education would be, and how they might compare to the cost of implementing free secondary education.

Details of the Intervention 

Researchers are evaluating the impact of full, needs-based scholarships on secondary school enrollment and the returns to secondary education in Ghana over more than ten years. In the fall of 2008, they identified students who had earned admission into a four-year secondary school but had not enrolled due to financial constraints. They enrolled 2,064 of them in a longitudinal study, and among them selected 682 students by lottery to receive a scholarship that covered 100 percent of the tuition and fees at a local public school. The scholarships were announced four months into the 2008-2009 academic year; over 75 percent of scholarship winners enrolled in secondary school that year.

At the beginning of the study, the research team surveyed all participating youth and their guardians. At the time, the youth ranged between 13 and 25 years old, with an average age of 17 years. Study participants were given a cell phone, and once a year, researchers attempted to call all participants in order to update their contact information and ask for their current schooling status and location. If participants could not be reached over the phone, researchers attempted to find them by visiting their home area.

Researchers conducted an in-person, in-depth follow-up survey in 2013 to measure participants’ educational attainment, employment status and earnings, health, marriage and fertility, time and risk preferences, civic participation, and other outcomes. In 2015, they did a shorter phone survey to update information on education, employment status and earnings, and fertility and marriage outcomes. They will continue to track the study groups into 2020 and beyond.

Results and Policy Lessons 

Results indicate that school fees (rather than the opportunity cost of being in school) were the major barrier to educational attainment for youths selected for the study. Removing that barrier produced large gains in educational attainment, skills, and knowledge. Girls also experienced economic gains, and delayed childbirth and marriage relative to their peers who were not offered scholarships. Boys’ earnings were unaffected as of the 2015 follow-up, likely due to limited employment opportunities.

Scholarship use and educational attainment: Seventy-five percent of scholarship winners enrolled in secondary school immediately upon receiving the scholarship, almost four times the enrollment rate in the comparison group. By 2015, 71 percent of the scholarship winners had completed senior high school, compared to 42 percent of the non-winners. Students with different initial performance levels were all more likely to enroll – even students who had barely gained admission overwhelmingly used the scholarship.

Skills and knowledge: Scholarship winners scored higher on a cognitive skills test administered by the researchers than non-winners. Scholarship winners were also more likely to read the newspaper, use social media, have an email account, and be aware of issues of national and international importance.

Employment and earnings: Most graduates had not been able to find jobs. A third of the young adults in the study were still looking for a job, and secondary schooling did not lead to a significant increase in paid employment. Male scholarship winners were not earning significantly more than men who didn’t win scholarships. Female scholarship winners were not more likely to be employed, but earned more than non-winners (the average, including zeroes for those not working, was 73 for scholarship winners vs. 58 Ghanaian cedis for non-winners, or about US$20 vs. US$16, per month).  

Fertility: Girls who won scholarships married later and delayed childbirth, particularly unwanted pregnancies, relative to girls who did not win scholarships. By 2015, 46 percent of girls offered scholarships had been pregnant at least once, while 55 percent in the comparison group had.  

Tertiary education: Students who received scholarships to attend senior high school were much more likely to plan to go on to tertiary education, but few ended up applying and matriculating, citing cost as the main barrier.

Additional outcomes, such as civic participation, levels of trust, respect of authority, attitudes towards religion, etc. are currently being analyzed.