The Gates Foundation announced in early December a new post-secondary education campaign aimed at increasing college graduation rates, including a $13 million grant to MDRC, a New York-based research firm, to administer and evaluate an initiative providing community college students with scholarships of up to $1,300 tied to attendance and performance. Imagine getting a higher allowance for good grades. Now you have the idea.
Initial research on performance-bonuses for secondary school students is positive (see the work of Roland Fryer), yet the backlash to the research has been caustic, with educators from both the right and left saying that financial incentives compromise inculcating in students a love of learning. At the higher education level, the performance-bonuses will function as a partial tuition refund granted upon successful completion of benchmarks.
The study’s participants will be randomly selected from the populations at five community colleges and one university. Isolating the effects of the performance bonuses is a serious methodological issue, and it’ll be interesting to see how MDRC accounts for the jealousy that will arise between those selected for participation and those not so lucky, a.k.a. the control group.
Veronica, a study participant, to her friend Whitney, a non-participant: “I’m going to study tonight…If I get a good grade in class, I get a Gates Foundation bonus.”
Whitney back to Veronica: “I hate this class, and it sucks even more that even if I do well, I don’t get a bonus. I’m going to drop the class and pick up some more hours at my job.”
Funny, right? But I'm serious. If MDRC cannot account for Veronica’s dis-incentive, it will undermine any impact attributed to the positive incentive of the performance bonuses.