Across the world, a central dilemma for educators and education policymakers is how to ensure that students actually go to, and stay, in school.
A decade ago, a team of researchers, co-led by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Felipe Barrera-Osorio, set out to discover whether scholarships could help third- and fourth-grade students in rural, impoverished areas of Cambodia attend and stay in primary school. More than that, they wanted to know which type of scholarship worked better — a merit scholarship, awarded based on academic achievement, or poverty scholarships, awarded according to highest financial need.
Both types of scholarships resulted in students staying in school longer. But that didn’t automatically lead to other gains. Students who won the merit scholarships saw more cognitive benefits as measured by standardized tests than students who received the poverty-based scholarships.
The researchers caught up with the students, now adults in their early 20s, last year. Barrera-Osorio and his co-researchers, Andreas de Barros, a Harvard doctoral candidate, and Deon Filmer, lead economist at the World Bank, wanted to know if the patterns had held, and if the type of scholarship had any lasting effect on how the students were doing in the labor market. They also wanted to see if staying in school longer had any relationship with social-emotional skills — skills that help students connect with one another and contribute to their emotional well-being.
What Happened Next
When the researchers caught up with the respondents as young adults, the merit-scholarship advantage for cognitive skills remained — but only for students who were poor enough that they would have qualified for either the merit-based or the poverty-based scholarship. The researchers found that poor students who had received the merit scholarships not only had learned more in school, as measured by cognitive tests, but they also reported being healthier and happier than those who had received the poverty scholarships, but also qualified for the merit scholarships.
The merit recipients overall, however, did not show any benefits when it came to social-emotional skills, an deviation from other studies in developed countries that closely link gains in cognitive and social-emotional skills.