Headed to College

The Effects of New York City’s Small High Schools of Choice on Postsecondary Enrollment


Since 2010, MDRC has released three research reports on the New York City Department of Education’s multiyear initiative to create small public high schools that are open to any student who wants to attend. This brief adds evidence from a fourth cohort on high school graduation and presents MDRC’s first results with respect to these schools’ effects on postsecondary enrollment.

MDRC’s rigorous assessment has demonstrated that these schools have markedly increased graduation rates for disadvantaged students of color, many of whom start high school below grade level. Yet it is no longer enough to improve high school graduation rates. In an economy that is increasingly characterized by technological change and globalization, it is widely accepted that enrollment and success in postsecondary education is necessary for young people to be prepared for the world of work.

New York City’s new small public high schools of choice (“SSCs” for short) are well positioned to meet this challenge because of their focus on providing academically rigorous curricula and personalized learning environments for their students. As noted above, this approach has led to success: SSC enrollees have experienced large, positive effects on high school graduation rates compared with their control group counterparts, regardless of students’ family income, race/ethnicity, or prior academic achievement. And while this study occurred during a period when the State of New York raised its high school graduation standards and New York City was taking steps to meet those standards — and thus graduation rates were rising across the city — students who enrolled in SSCs consistently outperformed their control group counterparts in each of the years studied. Furthermore, SSCs achieve these gains at a lower cost per graduate than that of the high schools attended by their control group counterparts, in large part because more SSC enrollees successfully graduate from high school and fewer SSC enrollees need to attend a fifth year of high school. (A companion paper describes the cost analysis in detail.)

Using college enrollment and degree attainment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, this policy brief provides evidence that the positive academic effects of attending an SSC continue beyond high school. Specifically, findings indicate that attending an SSC in high school substantially increases students’ enrollment and persistence in postsecondary education — a finding that holds true for students of a wide range of abilities entering colleges across the spectrum of selectivity.