By Sandra McNally, Professor in the School of Economics at the University of Surrey.
The type and quality of education matters for labour market prospects, as reflected in future employment and earnings. There is often dissatisfaction expressed with the careers information and advice provided to students at school and beyond. It’s a matter of common sense (rather than academic study) to say that students do need to have good quality careers information and advice. What isn’t clear is whether cheap information interventions are really going to make the difference for young people as they approach the time where they need to make important decisions. In recent years, there have been a number of economic studies that have used rigorous approaches to test whether simple information interventions actually work. I have reviewed this for a recent IZA World of Labour paper, which focuses on results from 10 evaluations implemented via Randomised Control Trials: http://wol.iza.org/articles/how-important-is-career-information-and-advice
Interventions vary in terms of the content, the target group and the institutional context. The content of the information intervention might be characterized in the following way: (a) information about the relative labour market benefits of different educational options (b) information about financial aid (c) information about labour market benefits and financial aid (d) more specific semi-tailored information about admissions processes, and the relative merits of different institutions/programs in terms of inputs, future prospects and costs. The target groups vary from young people or parents some time before they make post-compulsory decisions to people right at the margin of making decisions, and whether the intervention aims to influence whether to participate in post-compulsory education at all or the nature of that participation. The institutional context varies considerably across countries.
The findings are mixed, with most studies showing an effect of information interventions on attitudes and beliefs, but fewer showing an effect on behaviour. In developed countries, simply providing information about the link between education and labor market outcomes has not yet been found to have much impact on actual behavior, even though it does change people’s attitudes to educational investment decisions. On the other hand, there is evidence to show that when supplemented with mentoring or practical help, the provision of information can influence behavior. Two studies in developed countries focusing on information provision show a positive impact on information on behavior – one in the US (Hoxby and Turner, 2013) and the other in France (Goux et al. 2014).
The US study uses administrative data to target high school seniors who are both very high-achieving and have low family income. Students are posted an information package which is ‘semi-customized’ to take account of their circumstances (i.e. income and location) and includes a fee waiver for making college applications. The study in France focused on students who are very low achieving. In contrast to the US study, it aims at making people more realistic about future plans. It focuses on decisions made at the end of middle schools (where students are aged 15/16) and targets the parents of young people who the school head teacher has identified as the most low-achieving and at risk of dropping out.
Whereas the US study focuses on changing the expectations of students that are too low, the French study does the opposite, as in this case expectations are unrealistically high and lead to ill-considered actions and premature drop-out from any further education. It is thus important to note that information experiments can be just as well applied to downgrading overly optimistic expectations as upgrading overly pessimistic expectations. What both studies have in common is that students make better educational choices as a result of the information interventions. The US study shows that students attend more selective colleges and do just as well in terms of grades and persistence as they would have done in a less selective college. The French study shows lower drop-out rates one and two years after the intervention and that the change in behavior is between attending a 2 year vocational program rather than repeating grades and/or dropping out.
The two studies are similar to each other in the sense that the treatment group is very well targeted as being people who are on the verge of making a decision about educational choice and appear to have no other impediment to making that choice (i.e. they have appropriate preparation for the choices being considered). The treatments deliver exactly what the targets group need and want at the right time. In some of the cases where the information intervention has not influenced behavior, there have been other obstacles. For example, sending text messages can improve young people’s motivation but it doesn’t improve their results if they don’t know how to translate their higher ambitions to higher test scores. Another example is providing final year students information about the earnings returns to different courses. There was an increase in applications for ‘high return routes’ but no increase in admissions because the system is very competitive for high-return educational routes. Policy makers should take note that although information interventions are not costly (relative to many other policies), making them effective is not a simple matter.
Goux, D., M. Gurgand, E. Maurin. “Adusting your dreams? The effect of schools and peers on dropout behaviour.” IZA Discussion Paper. No. 7948. (2014). Online at http://ftp.iza.org/dp7948.pdf
Hoxby, C., and S. Turner. “Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students.” SIEPR Discussion Paper No. 12-014. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. (2013).