Press Release

New Findings Show New York City’s Small High Schools Boost College Enrollment Rates Among Disadvantaged Students

Higher High School Graduation Rates Translate into College Enrollment; College-Going by Black Males Up by 36 Percent


(New York, October 16, 2014) — MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm, released new findings today from its rigorous multiyear study of small public high schools in New York City. The findings confirm that these schools, which serve mostly disadvantaged students of color, not only raise graduation rates by 9.4 percentage points, but they boost college enrollment by 8.4 percentage points. In addition, the small high schools achieve these gains at a lower cost per graduate than that of the high schools attended by students who had applied to these schools but were randomly assigned to other public high schools when small school slots were full.

Nearly all of the increase in high school graduation rates can be attributed to a rise in Regents diplomas attained, and the effects are seen in virtually every student group attending these schools, including male and female students of color, students with below grade level eighth-grade proficiency scores in math and reading, low-income students, and students in special education. The effects on postsecondary enrollment are seen for most student subgroups, including low-income students and students of color. For example, the schools boosted college enrollment by 11.3 percentage points for black males, a 36 percent increase relative to their control group counterparts.

Our study confirms that New York City’s small public high schools are making a marked difference for a wide range of disadvantaged students, not only helping more of them to graduate with Regents diplomas but equipping them to actually take the next critical step into college,” said Gordon Berlin, President of MDRC.  “What is truly remarkable, though, about these results is that a high school reform has had a measurable effect on college-going and it has done so at scale — across scores of public high schools.”

More Detail on the Study and the Findings

The creation of small schools by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) began in the 1990s. In 2002, the NYCDOE instituted a district-wide high school admissions process that emphasized student choice and began establishing over 100 new academically nonselective small public schools. Each enrolling approximately 100 students per grade in grades 9 through 12, these schools were created to serve some of the district’s most disadvantaged students. Besides being small, they emphasize academic rigor, personalized relationships among strong teachers and students, and real-world relevance of learning. MDRC’s study takes advantage of the lottery-like features in New York City’s high school admissions process that kick in when schools have more applicants than seats available to compare over time the academic outcomes of students who won their first lottery and enrolled in the small schools with those who sought admission, lost a lottery, and enrolled in other New York City high schools.

Previous reports by MDRC (in 2010, 2012, and 2013) showed marked increases in graduation rates for the cohorts of students who entered these small high schools in 2005, 2006, and 2007. This new report updates those findings with results from a fourth cohort of students who entered ninth grade in the fall of 2008. For the first time, the study also follows students into postsecondary education. A separate working paper contains a cost analysis. The study’s new findings include:

  • For all four cohorts of students, small high schools in New York City markedly increased high school graduation rates for large numbers of disadvantaged students of color, even as graduation rates were rising at other New York City high schools. For the full sample, students at small high schools have a graduation rate of 71.6 percent, compared with 62.2 percent for students in the control situation. The higher graduation rate was driven by students earning Regents diplomas. These effects were seen among nearly all subgroups of students who attended the small high schools.
  • Attending a small high school increased the percentage of students who graduated from high school in four years and enrolled the next year in a postsecondary institution by 8.4 percentage points (to 49.0 percent). Most subgroups, including black males, black females, and students eligible for free/reduced-price lunch, experienced these effects. Small high schools modestly increased enrollment rates in postsecondary schools at every selectivity level, including competitive and very competitive schools, as defined by Barron’s ratings.
  • The small high schools achieved these gains at a lower cost per graduate than that of the high schools attended by their control group counterparts — roughly 14 percent to 16 percent lower. This is in large part because more students successfully graduate from small high schools and fewer need to attend an expensive fifth year of high school.

What Are Small Schools of Choice?

Small schools of choice (SSCs) — a term coined by the researchers to emphasize the fact that these nonselective schools are open to and chosen by students of all academic levels — are more than just small. They were developed and approved through a competitive proposal process administered by the New York City Department of Education and designed to stimulate innovative ideas for new schools by a range of stakeholders and institutions, from educators to school reform organizations, led in part by New Visions for Public Schools and including the Urban Assembly, the Institute for Student Achievement, the College Board, and others. The resulting schools emphasize academic rigor; strong, sustained relationships between students and faculty; and community partnerships to offer relevant learning opportunities outside the classroom. Each SSC also received start-up funding as well as assistance and policy support from the district and other key players to facilitate leadership development, hiring, and implementation. These reform efforts were supported by a consortium of funders, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Open Society Foundations, and were implemented in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. Prior research by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools suggests that teachers and principals at SSCs strongly believe that academic rigor and personal relationships with students contribute to the effectiveness of their schools.

How Was the Study Conducted?

As noted above, the study takes advantage of lottery-like features in New York City’s high school admissions process. Each year, NYC eighth-graders are required to select in rank order of priority up to 12 high schools that they want to attend; when an SSC has more applicants than spaces, the district’s High School Application Processing System uses a randomized process to break ties and assign students to the SSC or to another school in the district from each student’s list of preferences. This analysis examines lotteries that occurred in 84 of the 123 SSCs and provides the basis for an unusually large and rigorous study of the effects of enrolling in SSCs on students’ academic achievement; the study tracks more than 12,000 students in SSCs and other high schools in New York City. The study does not compare the SSCs to the large, failing high schools they replaced but, rather, to the other public high schools operating in the reform-rich atmosphere in New York City.

MDRC’s study is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All publications from the study, including the new one, Headed to College: The Effects of New York City’s Small High Schools of Choice on Postsecondary Enrollment by Rebecca Unterman, are available on MDRC’s website.

Contact: John Hutchins, Communications Director, 212-340-8604, [email protected], or Farhana Hossain, 212-340-4505, [email protected]

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Headquartered in New York City, with a regional office in Oakland, CA, MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization with 40 years of experience designing and evaluating education and social policy initiatives.