Speaking in favor of Senate Bill 432, a bill to eliminate New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Account program, Sen. Rebecca Whitley, D-Hopkinton, argued that state education aid should not go to help lower-income students purchase educational services outside of their assigned school districts, but should directly aid their districts instead.

“We clearly have a problem with the way that education funding is distributed, public funds are distributed to our schools,” she said. “But the solution is not to send that money to private and religious schools. The answer is to send funding in a way that districts and the students with the greatest challenges receive the funding that they need. That’s where we should be focusing our efforts, not sending dollars to private and religious schools. 

“A fair school funding system must deliver more funds to those most in need, and those are our school districts with high concentrations of poverty that require additional resources to serve their students. That’s where we should be focusing on.”

Regarding the formula for distributing state aid to local school districts, Sen. Whitley is right. The state should be able to give more adequacy aid to lower-income districts than it gives to higher-income districts. 

But it can’t.

In its Claremont rulings (here and here), the state Supreme Court’s declared large disparities in state aid to school districts unconstitutional. The court held that state adequate education aid must be uniform statewide in pursuit of the state’s duty to fully fund an adequate public education.

The state is allowed to give additional aid for lower-income and special-education students on top of the base adequacy aid. But it may not, say, give property-poor districts $10,000 in adequacy aid per student while giving property-rich districts $2,000, or nothing at all.

The Claremont lawsuit was sold as a way to “level the playing field” between poorer and richer districts. But as critics pointed out at the time, Claremont would not do that, and could make those inequities worse, unless the court or the Legislature also prohibited local taxpayers from spending any local money on public schools. 

That, of course, did not happen. The court refused to rule local contributions to public education unconstitutional, and no Legislature would pass such a law. So instead of the state reducing funding disparities by giving more aid to poorer districts and less aid to richer districts, the Claremont ruling forced taxpayers statewide to subsidize all districts equally. Such equal state funding maintains preexisting disparities, and possibly makes them worse. 

Post-Claremont, the Legislature is forced to subsidize public schools in the state’s wealthiest communities even though everyone knows this sends to rich towns money that otherwise would go to poor towns.

As currently structured, New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Account program sort of gets around that. Only families with incomes at or below 300% of the federal poverty level qualify for Education Freedom Accounts. So through this program the state can give lower-income families the ability to leave their assigned public schools and find an alternative that might work better for their children.

Unfortunately, that leaves out students who struggle in their assigned schools but who don’t meet the income threshold. Educational fit is highly personal and is not dictated by income. 

A better way would be to make all options available to all students, let families choose whichever option works best for their children, and let the state vary the size of aid based on criteria such as income or a student’s individual needs. 

But as long as the state distributes aid directly to school districts, it should have the discretion to do as Sen. Whitley suggests: send significantly more aid to poorer districts. The Josiah Bartlett Center has advocated this for decades (see here and here, for example.) It’s good public policy. But it’s not allowed under current Supreme Court jurisprudence. 

Perhaps Sen. Whitley and other likeminded legislators would be interested in introducing a constitutional amendment to fix that in the future. Such amendments have failed in the past, but that doesn’t diminish the need to fix this problem created by the Claremont rulings, and only a constitutional amendment will do the trick.   

In New Hampshire, School Choice Week 2022 (Jan. 24-28) highlighted some reasons why parents pursue educational options beyond their assigned public school. 

On Monday, School Choice Week kicked off with a new policy at Newmarket Junior-Senior High School: Unmasked students are to be removed from class, given detention, then suspended if they continue to attend school without wearing a mask. 

Recognizing the blowback such a policy would create, the principal told parents in a letter days earlier that if they didn’t like it they could switch their children to another school.

“We recognize that there are some who oppose the wearing of masks in schools,” the principal wrote. “In order to better meet the needs of these families, the New Hampshire Department of Education continues to provide alternative options for learning that can take place in the home through (Virtual Learning Academy Charter School) enrollment.”

So School Choice Week started with a public school principal urging parents to choose an alternative school.

The next day came the news that students in a Derry middle school would face detention for not wearing “properly-fitted” masks. In detention, they would be re-educated. 

“We will use this time in concert with our school nurse to provide more education for students to stress the importance of compliance,” the school principal wrote.

The same week these severe masking policies were implemented, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New York Times and National Public Radio ran pieces that called into question the efficacy and wisdom of school mask mandates.

This disconnect between some district policies and the evolving research on COVID mitigation protocols and practices has exacerbated tensions and frustrations, leading to additional pressure for families to have multiple educational options. 

Though masking happened to the the issue that blew up during School Choice Week this year, parents have expressed numerous other reasons for seeking alternative educational options for their children. 

In January, more than half of parents (52%) said they considered or are considering finding a different school for at least one of their children this year. Eighteen percent of parents said they did choose a new school for at least one of their children in the past year. 

The top reasons for considering a different school were higher quality education (36%), COVID disruptions (34%), safety or bullying (26%), the child is unhappy at school (23%). 

Before the pandemic, demand for educational alternatives was lower, but was still strong.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ Parent and Family Involvement in Education survey for the 2018-19 school year found that 36% of students had parents who indicated they had considered multiple schools for their child. Among that group, 92% listed quality of school staff as a factor, 74% said curriculum focus or academic programs, and 69% said safety.

Research by EdChoice shows that parental educational preferences differ from actual student enrollment. Though 36% of parents nationwide say they prefer to enroll their children in a district public school, that’s where 83% of students are enrolled. Though 40% of parents say they would prefer to enroll their children in a private school, only 5% of students are enrolled in one. Though 13% of parents say they’d prefer a charter school, only 8% of students are enrolled in one. 

Choice programs such as charter schools and New Hampshire’s Educational Freedom Accounts (EFAs) are designed to maximize family options so parents can use their own discretion to choose a school that best matches their children’s needs. 

EFAs have proven unexpectedly popular, with 1,837 students enrolling in the program by the time School Choice Week arrived, according to Children’s Scholarship Fund NH, which administers the program.

Yet as  families took advantage of the EFA opportunity, legislators introduced bills to weaken, limit, and even abolish the EFA program. 

Several of those bills will be heard in the  House and Senate Education Committees this week and next. The anti-EFA bills include the following:

  • House Bill 1115 would eliminate student assessment options currently included in the EFA program and require students to take state assessment tests (which might not be aligned with the curricula EFA students are being taught). 
  • House Bill 1120 would require an education service provider chosen by an EFA recipient be a state-approved non-public school education program and to have been in business for at least a year prior to receiving funding. 
  • House Bill 1637 would, as a condition of receiving an EFA, require parents to answer a survey detailing their reasons for wanting to leave their public school.
  • House Bill 1669 would move administration for the EFA program to the Department of Education. Current law has it administered by a private scholarship organization. The bill also would limit the amount of money parents can roll over in their EFA accounts. 
  • House Bill 1670 would prohibit families from keeping their EFA accounts open if a student returns to a public school, and would require unused funds to be collected by the state. It would require annual audits of all EFAs and terminate an EFA account if a parent spent a substantial portion of funds on unapproved expenses, even accidentally.
  • House Bill 1283 would repeal the provision in the EFA law that holds the EFA contributions to be tax-exempt. 
  • House Bill 1516 would prohibit local education dollars from ever being used for EFAs. 
  • Senate Bill 351 would require burdensome, detailed financial and other reporting for any private school that accepts an EFA student. 
  • Senate Bill 237 would make families prove that their income is below 300% of the federal poverty level each year to be eligible for an EFA.
  • House Bill 1684 would limit funding for the EFA program to $129,000 in this fiscal year and $3.3 million next fiscal year, those being early estimates for the state cost of the program. Currently, 1,837 students are enrolled in the EFA program. Were this bill to pass, approximately 1,811 children would lose their scholarships this year, and 1,120 children who have scholarships now would be unable to get them next year. (The average scholarship amount is $4,600.)
  • House Bill 1683 and Senate Bill 432 would repeal the EFA program. If either of these bills passed, 1,837 students would lose their scholarships, and the program would be killed, denying all students this option in the future. 

Efforts to limit and control educational options for families this year face an inevitable collision with the preferences of increasing numbers of parents.

Gallup’s tracking poll on education satisfaction last year found that 54% of Americans were dissatisfied with the quality of K-12 education. That’s not an anomaly. Only three times in 23 years has the poll found that a majority of Americans were satisfied with the quality of K-12 education.

A Real Clear Opinion poll last year found that 74% of Americans support school choice, and that includes more than 70% of Asian, black, Hispanic, and white Americans.

The poll also asked whether people would support giving parents a portion of K-12 public education funds “to use for home, virtual, or private education expenses.” Two-thirds said yes, and the breakdown among Republicans and Democrats was identical, with 66% of each party saying yes. 

Last October, as education became a top national political issue, school choice grew in popularity. Eighty percent of parents with school-age children said they supported Education Savings Accounts like New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts.

The Josiah Bartlett Center’s poll of New Hampshire voters last year found a plurality of voters in favor of EFAs. 

Partly because of the record popularity of school choice, last year 18 states either established or expanded a school choice program. 

All indications are that the school choice moment has arrived. At this point, the smart political move is to find ways to accommodate that demand. Fighting it by attempting to legislate away parental options is like standing on the shore firing a squirt gun at a tsunami. 

As School Choice Week kicks off, it’s worth considering why there’s no such thing as Grocery Choice Week. Or Clothing Choice Week. Or Home Choice Week. 

When it comes to the basic necessities of life — food, clothing and shelter — Americans have the freedom to choose from among whatever options the market provides. (Government limits housing choices, but not as much as it limits K-12 education choices.)

Education is a service provided by state and local governments, so of course it’s more limited, one might argue. But why is it provided by government, as opposed to funded by government?

Government finances or subsidizes some goods and services — food (through food stamps), medical care (through Medicaid and Medicare), higher education (through Pell Grants & other aid) — without providing the service itself. It’s perfectly feasible to do the same with K-12 education. 

There’s no reason government can’t convert what it currently spends on public education (about $20,000 per pupil per year in New Hampshire) into grants or scholarships that parents could use to purchase educational services from approved providers — including public schools.

One argument against this approach is that public schools are an important transmitter of community standards, values and beliefs from one generation to the next. But is this still true?

Parents are being told in no uncertain terms that they may not control the content of their children’s education. They are told that they have no say over what library books their children can access or what ideas, beliefs and facts their children are taught. 

This goes double for non-parents. Community members who object to what is being taught in their name are rarely taken seriously and invited to help ensure that schools uphold community standards. 

On top of this, COVID-19 has shown the damage that can be done by one-size-fits-all school policies that don’t meed families’ needs. Forced remote instruction has had devastating academic and psychological consequences. 

In New Hampshire, more than 8,000 students left the public school system in 2020, and they haven’t come back. That represents 4.5% of the entire student population. Though private school enrollment in New Hampshire for years has tracked closely with public school enrollment, that changed during the pandemic. Private school enrollment shot up as public school enrollment plunged. 

That indicates that parents fled a system that left them with no satisfactory options. Private schools mostly stayed open, attracting thousands of families who weren’t getting what they needed from their local public schools.  

Nationwide, most parents said in a January poll that they’re looking for a new school for their children. If local public school systems offered families a variety of educational options, this number likely would be much lower. Parents don’t leave systems that are meeting their children’s needs. They leave when they feel like those needs aren’t being met.  

Opponents of school choice fear the consequences of giving families control over their education dollars. They claim it would destroy the public education system. But the opposite is true. 

Making the system more responsive to individual student needs will strengthen it in the long run. This is how market forces work. They prompt adaptation. 

Some public schools already operate this way. Charter schools cannot force the children who live near them to attend. These public schools have to attract students. They do this by offering programs that parents want. And it works. Some attract students from dozens of towns. Charters prove that public schools absolutely can compete successfully with private schools. 

The only thing keeping traditional public schools from functioning in a similar way is the design of the system. As long as district schools don’t have to attract nearby students, but can essentially conscript them, reform is going to be extremely difficult to achieve. 

Let families have more control over their education dollars, and schools will improve quickly. This isn’t just theory. It’s already happening in states that have school choice. 

School choice empowers families and improves student outcomes, even for students who remain in traditional schools. It’s the most powerful and effective education improvement method for the simple reason that it’s the only one to match each individual student with the specific services he or she needs. 

New Hampshire voters would have the option of creating local Education Freedom Accounts under a bill scheduled for consideration in the House this week.

Building on the popularity of the state’s new Education Freedom Account program, House Bill 607 would empower the voters in each school district to create a local EFA option for their own students. 

Earlier last year, the bill was written off as all but dead on arrival. But it cleared the House Education Committee in November, and it has some insider buzz going into this week’s vote. 

Under the bill, if 25 registered voters, or 2 percent of the registered voters in a school district, whichever is less, ask the district to create a local EFA program, the district would be required to put the question to voters at the next town meeting.

A 3/5 majority of town meeting voters would be needed to approve a program.

These local EFA programs would be similar to the existing state version, with some key differences. Notably, there is no income cap on participation in the local programs, and students enrolled in private schools would not be eligible. Also, eligibility would be limited to public school and home-schooled pupils who live in the district. 

Funding for the program would come from the local portion of the district’s public education expenditures. 

Opponents characterize the bill as defunding public schools. As with the original EFA legislation, this misunderstands the premise behind the proposal. 

Communities fund public schools for the purpose of educating children. But a lot of children struggle to succeed in the current system. 

The state’s own data show that 38% of New Hampshire students scored proficient or above in math in 2020 (down from 48% in 2019), and 52% scored proficient or above in reading in 2020 (down from 56% in 2019). 

HB 607 would allow local voters to decide whether to let parents spend some of the money set aside for educating their children on services offered outside of their assigned public school. 

The funds would have to be used for their intended purpose: to educate children. The difference is that families would have the choice of keeping their children in the assigned public school or spending their allotted education dollars on services offered by other providers.

Either way, the money goes to educate children. At issue is who decides which education services to purchase. Do school district officials decide, or do parents?

Initially, political prospects for the bill were considered dim, in large part because the EFA concept was so new in New Hampshire. But the state’s new EFA program has experienced higher-than-expected demand. More than 1,600 students chose an EFA this past fall. 

There’s now a proven interest in education alternatives in New Hampshire. And because the bill would not mandate local EFAs, but would merely let voters choose whether to adopt them, it might have a stronger chance of passage than originally believed. 

School districts that offered less in-person instruction last year saw fewer students pass end-of-year standardized tests, a new academic study of student performance in 12 states has found. 

Pass rates declined across the board compared to prior years, but “these declines were larger in districts with less in-person instruction,” conclude researchers from Brown University, M.I.T., and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. 

During the 2020-21 school year, passing rates in math declined by 14.2 percentage points on average, and passing rates in English Language Arts declined by 6.3 percentage points on average, in the 12 studied states (which included Massachusetts, but not New Hampshire).

However, “offering full in-person instruction rather than fully hybrid or virtual instruction reduces test score losses in math by 10.1 percentage points (on the base of 14.2 percentage points). In ELA, the loss is reduced in fully in-person settings by 3.2 percentage points.”

Moreover, academic losses in English Language Arts were more pronounced in districts with larger populations of minority students.

“Specifically, among districts with a larger share of Black and Hispanic students, districts with less in-person schooling saw a greater decline in ELA test scores than those with more in-person schooling. Although the impact of schooling mode on ELA is fairly small for districts which are majority white, it is large for those districts with a majority of students of color. Meanwhile, the impact of access to in-person learning had a similar effect on math scores for all districts, regardless of their racial composition.”

The results support the conclusion that in-person instruction produces larger learning gains, on average, than hybrid and remote instruction, the authors write.

“…our analyses demonstrate that virtual or distanced schooling modes cannot support student learning in the same way as in-person schooling. As such, educational impacts of schooling mode on students’ learning outcomes should be a critical factor in policy responses to future pandemics or other large-scale schooling disruptions,” they conclude.

The authors are Emily Oster and Clare Halloran of Brown University, James Okun of M.I.T., and Rebecca jack of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

The study is not the first to find that remote and hybrid instruction produced large drops in academic performance. 

One from the Netherlands in April found that “students made little or no progress while learning from home.”

A meta-analysis this fall of 11 studies of COVID-related school closures on student performance found “a negative effect of school closures on student achievement, specifically in younger students and students from families with low socioeconomic status.”

These findings suggest that school closures probably were a significant factor in the drop in student test scores in New Hampshire last year. New Hampshire scores in math and reading dropped by percentages similar to those in other states. 

On September 28, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe said in a debate, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Before that debate, McAuliffe had led Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin in every poll but one. The day after the debate, the Youngkin campaign released its first ad featuring McAuliffe’s quote. A month later, Youngkin was leading in all polls. He won, with parental authority in education being a defining issue of the race. 

The issue wasn’t new for Virginians. In his term as governor, McAuliffe had vetoed a bill to alert parents when sexually explicit material was being taught to their children. This year, he supported COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates for all schools. 

The issue wasn’t primarily about books or education theory. It was about the nature of public school governance. 

Broadly speaking, some people believe public schools should be more democratic than bureaucratic in nature. That is, they largely should reflect the views of local families and taxpayers and be responsive to parents. Another camp generally views public schools as “government schools.” That is, they exist as a sort of government bureaucracy, the purpose of which is to disseminate whatever content the experts in the field determine is best. 

McAuliffe expressed the latter view, and he paid for it. 

In practice, public schools tend to be a mix of both views, and the question is how far do they tip to one side or the other. McAuliffe refused to acknowledge that a balance exists, and he picked the wrong side of the scale.

A huge amount of trust is necessary for public education to work. When parents put their kids on the bus or drop them at the school door, they are exercising tremendous trust, built in part on the understanding that they have some say in what happens inside the building. If they are told otherwise, trust immediately breaks down. 

A USA Today/Suffolk poll in October found that 50% of voters said parents should have more of an influence over school curricula, while 39% said school boards should. Independents (57%) and Republicans (79%) favored parents, but Democrats favored school boards 70%-16%.

According to exit polls, Youngkin won parents of school-aged children 52%-48%. Just the year before, Joe Biden won that same group of Virginians by 10 points. (Biden also won non-parents by 15 points, and Youngkin won them by 50%-49%.)

Polls before the election showed education surging to become a top 3 issue for voters in the final month. It wasn’t the only reason Youngkin won. But education probably tipped the election to Youngkin — because he expressed the view that the “public” in “public schools” meant citizens, not government. 

Youngkin’s victory was not just a revolt of parents. Americans who don’t have children in public schools have developed a sense of dissatisfaction with public education too. There’s a broad sense of powerlessness that comes through in public polling going back decades. 

In Gallup polling, the public hasn’t reported having a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools since 1987. Confidence in public schools has hovered in the mid-to-low 30s since 2010. Most Americans (54%) this year say they’re dissatisfied with what’s taught in K-12 public schools. 

A FOX News poll last month found that 73% of Americans said they were very concerned about what was being taught in public schools. Again, that’s not new. The figure was 85% in a FOX poll in 2013.

The sense of powerlessness against the bureaucracy was reflected in polling about school closures during COVID, when parents were given limited options. In March, when roughly a third of students had no access to in-person schooling, 79% of parents said they wanted school to be in person. 

That feeling of powerlessness is a big reason why school choice polls so well. Parents educational want options, and the general public agrees they should have options. 

In October, already broad support for school choice rose as parents’ role in education became a national political issue. The national tracking poll by EdChoice found that 70% of Americans support Education Savings Accounts, and 80% of parents do. 

Current controversies such as COVID-19 closures, mask mandates and Critical Race Theory did not create the demand that public schools be more responsive to parental and community concerns. That demand was already there. They made it stronger and broader.

The harder politicians work to keep parents (and citizens) on the outside of the system, the less parents and citizens will trust the system. Lower trust fuels greater demands for alternatives. Politicians who think they’re defending public schools by building walls to keep parents and citizens out are really undermining them by alienating the people they are intended to serve — and who have the power of the vote. 

Academic and behavioral outcomes among traditional public school students improve as their schools face greater competition from school choice, an analysis of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program shows.

As New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts program takes off this fall, this research from Florida’s much older scholarship program shows how the competition created by school choice benefits students who remain in traditional public schools, not just students who take the scholarships.

“We find evidence that as public schools are more exposed to private school choice, their students experience increasing benefits as the program scales up,” the authors write. “In particular, higher levels of private school choice exposure are associated with lower rates of suspensions and absences, and with higher standardized test scores in reading and in math.”

Specifically, “a doubling in the number of students participating in the voucher program increases test scores by 3 to 7 percent of a standard deviation and reduces behavioral problems by 6 to 9 percent” for students who remain in traditional public schools.

And the effects are strongest for lower-income students.

The authors found that “public school students who are most positively affected come from comparatively lower socioeconomic background….”

They found smaller, but statistically significant, gains for higher-income students “who are very unlikely to be targeted by vouchers themselves, suggesting that benefits may come partially through generalized school improvements rather than through improvements targeted solely at voucher-eligible students.”

The study, titled “Effects of Scaling Up Private School Choice Programs on Public School Students,” was conducted by professors David Figlio of Northwestern University, Cassandra Hart of the University of California at Davis, and Krzysztof Karbownik of Emory University.

Previous studies have shown similar benefits for traditional public school students from the creation of school choice programs, but those typically focused on the first few years of the choice program. The authors wanted to see whether those findings would hold as choice programs expanded over many years.

The authors examined student achievement in Florida for the first 16 years of the tax credit scholarship, which began in the 2002-03 school year. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to corporations that contribute to nonprofit Scholarship Funding Organizations.”

At the start of the program, students with a household income below 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($33,485 for a family of four) were eligible for up to $3,500 in scholarships. Now the scholarships are an average of $6,815 per student and families that earn up to 260 percent of the FPL ($68,900 for a family of four) are eligible.

Figlio, Hart, and Karbownik looked specifically at Florida-born students between grades 3 and 8 because of consistently available standardized test scores.

The authors summarized their results in an essay for Education Next, where they listed the following findings:

  • “As the scholarship program scaled up, academic and behavioral outcomes improved for students attending traditional public schools.”
  • “Students attending schools with more competitive pressure made larger gains as program enrollment grew statewide than did students at schools with less market competition.”
  • As the number of students using scholarships increases, test scores for public school students increased in reading and math. The number of students being suspended declines and “the proportion of days that students were absent falls.”
  • “Reading and math scores at schools in markets with more competitive pressure increase by about 14.5 percent of a standard deviation by 2014, as compared to schools facing less competition.”
  • Schools that later faced greater competition from school choice programs started with lower outcomes than other public schools. The competition from school choice programs raised student outcomes in those schools, narrowing the achievement gap between the lower-performing and higher-performing schools.
  • Positive impacts were greater for lower income students, but also affected more affluent students.

More students using scholarships to attend private schools would increase competition for public schools and result in higher academic and behavioral outcomes and positive behavioral outcomes for non-scholarship students, the authors conclude.

For more information on New Hampshire’s Tax Credit Scholarship and Education Freedom Account programs, visit Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, which administers the programs.

To read our study on the new Education Freedom Account program, go here.

Previous studies that have also found improved public school outcomes after the introduction of school choice programs can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

As education policy moved to the forefront of our national political discourse this fall, support for school choice programs increased in October, Morning Consult’s monthly school choice tracking poll for EdChoice shows.

Far from being “controversial,” school choice programs remain strongly popular nationwide and gained popularity as the debate over the role of parents in education intensified.

Nationally, 80 percent of parents with school age children expressed support for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in October.  Seventy-six percent support voucher programs and 75 percent support charter schools.

Among adults, strong majorities also supported school choice programs, with 70 percent supporting ESAs, 64 percent supporting vouchers, and 67 percent supporting charter schools.

Support for ESAs in New Hampshire remains high, with support from 71 percent of parents and 67 percent of the public favoring them, according to the poll.

This fall, New Hampshire launched a new Education Savings Account program, called Education Freedom Accounts. With an Education Freedom Account, a family can use a state grant to pay for the educational services they choose. That can be tuition at another public or private school, home-education materials, tutoring, community college courses, online classes, special education services, or other approved educational services.

You cam learn more about EFAs, and how to apply, at the Children’s Scholarship Fund.

For more information about school choice in New Hampshire, including EFAs, see the Education section of our website.

For more details on the Morning Consult Polling, visit https://edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com/

A college degree is a major investment in a better economic future, high school students are constantly told. But that isn’t always true. More than a quarter of college majors produce a negative return on investment, according to a study by Preston Cooper at the Foundation for Research on Economic Opportunity. 

A lot of studies have shown that STEM and business degrees pay better over a career than degrees such as psychology and education. (Here’s one Georgetown University did a few years ago.) 

Cooper’s study adds real value to the debate by ranking degrees based on the financial return on the student’s investment, not just lifetime earnings. Many studies simply point out that earning a degree leads to X average lifetime earnings. But getting the degree is costly, and that includes opportunity costs (foregone earnings while in school and in a career that didn’t require a college degree). Those costs have to be subtracted from the future earnings to get an accurate understanding of a degree’s value. 

Cooper also creates a searchable database that lets students compare nearly 30,000 degree programs at 1,775 colleges and universities. There’s a real difference in value not just among degrees, but among the same degree at different institutions, and this study explores that in detail. 

“The analysis reveals that a student’s choice of program is perhaps the most important financial decision he or she will ever make,” Cooper writes. “Most bachelor’s degree programs in engineering, computer science, economics, and nursing increase lifetime earnings by $500,000 or more, even after subtracting the costs of college. But most programs in fields such as art, music, philosophy, religion, and psychology leave students financially worse off than if they had never gone to college at all.”

Among the findings: 

  • For students who graduate on time, the median bachelor’s degree has a net ROI of $306,000. But some degrees are worth millions of dollars, while others have no net financial value at all.
  • After accounting for the risk of dropping out, ROI for the median bachelor’s degree drops to $129,000. Over a quarter of programs have negative ROI.
  • College rankings like the U.S. News and World Report emphasize choice of institution. But from a financial perspective, choice of major is the more important consideration. Major alone explains nearly half the variation in ROI. Students will have a much greater chance of financial success if they study engineering, computer science, nursing, or economics, rather than art, music, religion, psychology, or education.
  • Thirty-seven percent of programs do not deliver a financial return when adjusting for spending and completion. Another 32% have a lifetime ROI below $250,000.
  • Assuming students graduate in four years, 16% of college degrees have a negative return on investment. But many students take five or six years to graduate. Adjusting for actual completion times, 28% of degrees are found to have a negative return.
  • Programs at the most expensive schools (those with net tuition above $12,700) have a median completion-adjusted ROI of $198,000, compared to $129,000 for all programs. On average, the higher payoff from more expensive schools is enough to make the heftier tuition bill worth it.
  • Though elite colleges dominate the list of top programs in the country, attending an elite school is no golden ticket. Over 100 programs at colleges with an acceptance rate below 20% have negative ROI. Several U.S. News juggernauts such as Harvard, Penn, and Chicago all offer at least one program that leaves its students financially worse off.
  • At Harvard University, students who major in ethnic and gender studies can expect an ROI of negative $47,000. The film and photographic arts program at the University of Pennsylvania has an ROI of negative $140,000. Seventeen different programs at New York University have negative ROI, with the worst among them (music) leaving students over $500,000 in the hole.

Another blow to the argument for “free college” 

The study’s findings can be added to the list of reasons why “free college” for all is a bad idea. 

First, most degrees pay for themselves many times over, so there’s no need for the government to subsidize them. 

One might argue that the government should subsidize degrees such as psychology and education that produce a low or even negative financial return because they are valuable to society as a whole. 

But that assumes that the content of those programs is inherently valuable, when it might be the case that the programs struggle to produce larger returns because they are poor programs. 

The study finds that some education and psychology degrees produce large returns, though the median program produces poor returns. That suggests that some programs are of much higher quality than others. Subsidizing all degrees in a particular field would provide taxpayer support for mediocre and poor programs, preventing market incentives from improving those programs.

A better option would be to provide prospective students with data on long-term earnings for various programs. Over time, that would lead to improvements in the lower-performing programs, whereas government subsidies would provide those programs with steady cashflows regardless of their performance. 

A quick look at UNH

How does the University of New Hampshire stack up? Here’s a look at two majors, Animal Sciences and Business Administration. UNH generally ranks well on longer-term earnings vs. other public universities in the region. 

The median earnings for an Animal Sciences major at age 45 are $64,076 at UNH, $54,423 at the University of Connecticut, $53,112 at the University of Rhode Island, $54,643 at the University of Vermont, $61,251 at the University of Maine, and $55,160 at UMass-Amherst. (But they’re $88,314 at Auburn University.)

The median earnings for a Business Administration major at age 45 are $101,903 at UNH, $124,785 at Boston University, $88,364 at Granite State College, $74,587 at Keene State College, $77,070 at New England College, $112,671 at New England College of Business and Finance, $100,237 at New England Institute of Technology, $131,372 at Northeastern University, $74,488 at Plymouth State University, $97,549 at Southern New Hampshire University, $85,514 at Suffolk University, $101,943 at the University of Connecticut, $72,660 at the University of Maine, $78,154 at the University of Hartford, $108,619 at UMass-Amherst, $73,692 at the University of New England, $95,622 at the University of Rhode Island, and $92,148 at the University of Vermont.

Below are the earnings at ages 25, 35, and 45 for all UNH majors covered in the study. 

You can search the database here (about halfway down the page). 


University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Agricultural Production Operations. $27,322 $36,157 $40,217
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Animal Sciences. $30,783 $53,826 $64,076
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Anthropology. $26,498 $45,574 $50,798
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology. $44,520 $91,483 $106,677
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Other. $36,109 $65,240 $69,686
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Biology, General. $39,139 $79,726 $90,553
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Business Administration, Management and Operations. $53,050 $90,855 $101,903
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Chemical Engineering. $66,348 $96,549 $119,263
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Chemistry. $43,960 $79,179 $93,577
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Civil Engineering. $58,541 $93,959 $110,601
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Communication and Media Studies. $43,363 $80,693 $86,509
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Communication Disorders Sciences and Services. $20,388 $28,216 $31,515
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Computer and Information Sciences, General. $73,098 $118,834 $138,388
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Computer Engineering. $71,595 $122,339 $132,446
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Criminology. $36,490 $59,905 $66,479
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Drama/Theatre Arts and Stagecraft. $27,227 $47,367 $54,268
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Economics. $49,684 $83,330 $89,508
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Electrical, Electronics and Communications Engineering. $69,454 $112,119 $132,842
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus English Language and Literature, General. $30,296 $51,041 $56,630
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Environmental/Environmental Health Engineering. $52,699 $82,893 $109,012
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Ethnic, Cultural Minority, Gender, and Group Studies. $27,826 $48,179 $49,207
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Fine and Studio Arts. $24,571 $38,649 $40,419
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Genetics. $44,431 $86,481 $99,976
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Geography and Cartography. $28,950 $46,774 $51,320
University of New Hampshire-Main Campus Health and Medical Administrative Services. $50,711 $77,632 $93,663

More than 1,000 New Hampshire families have applied for one of the state’s new Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs), showing strong demand for a program that offers many lower-income families their first real alternative to their assigned public school. Sadly, opponents of the program have cited this strong interest as a reason to prevent the program from growing.

Opponents claim the program will cost taxpayers too much money, so it should be capped. In fact, the program will save taxpayers millions. And the more public school students who take an EFA, the more taxpayers will save.

Authorized by the Legislature this year, Education Freedom Accounts allow families with incomes of no more than 300% of the federal poverty level to spend their state adequate education grant on educational services of their choice (from an approved state list). EFAs involve only state education grants; all local taxpayer money remains in the public schools.

The average cost of each EFA is expected to be approximately $4,600. For context, the state Department of Education projects the average per student expenditure in New Hampshire public schools in 2020-21 to be $21,401.

EFAs educate students for less than a quarter of what taxpayers currently spend, on average.

About 1,500 families have applied for an EFA for this fall, according to news reports. If each application is approved, opponents argue, the program will cost the state $7 million this year, which is more than the state budgeted for the program. Opponents simply multiply the $4,600 average EFA grant by 1,500 students. (The total with these round numbers would be $6.9 million.)

But that number is misleading because it overestimates the cost to the state and doesn’t count the savings to local school districts.

First, let’s consider that number in the larger context of education spending in New Hampshire. The total spending on public education in the 2020-21 school year was more than $3.3 billion. The state portion of the spending at the end of the 2021 fiscal year was just over $769 million.

This would mean that even if EFAs were to cost the state $7 million this year, that figure would amount to less than 1% of state spending for public education and 0.2% of the total education spending.

The actual percentage will be much smaller, though, because many EFA students are already enrolled in public schools. For any student who is leaving a district public school, the EFA grant he or she will receive does not represent new spending. It’s money already budgeted for that student’s education. The state just deposits it into the family’s EFA instead of the school district’s bank account, so there is no change to the state portion of the funding.

At the local level, the school district keeps every dollar raised by local taxation. It remains with the school district even though the student does not. Thus, more money is left for fewer students.

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy studied the financial impact of the EFA program earlier this year. Our analysis projected that taxpayers would save $6.65 million in the first two years of the program based on a conservative estimate of EFA enrollment.

We estimated that 966 students would use an EFA this year and 2,335 would use one next year. If first-year enrollment is closer to 1,500 students, state costs will a little higher, somewhere just above $1 million, roughly. But total taxpayer savings will also be higher, closer to $3 million instead of our projected $1.85 million.

The additional costs over what were budgeted are tiny — a few million dollars out of $769 million in state-funded education spending (and $3.3 billion in total New Hampshire education spending).

From a financial point of view, there’s no reason to cap EFA enrollment based on the interest parents have shown in the program this fall.

From a humanitarian point of view, a cap would be bad for children.

While the political conversation has focused on costs, the argument about educational choice is not fundamentally an economic one. It’s about who gets to decide how each child is educated.

First, it’s obvious that the objections to EFAs aren’t really about costs. Just consider the following scenario.

Imagine that legislators enacted a program that attracted 1,500 students out of private schools and homeschooling and into local public schools. That program would represent somewhere between $21 million and $32 million in increased cost to our public education system.

Does anyone believe that EFA opponents would object to this program because of the increased costs? Of course not. They would cheer the growth in public school enrollment.

The argument against EFAs is not about costs. It is about who gets to control education and education spending – parents or school districts.

As good as New Hampshire public schools are, not every child is successful in a traditional public school. EFAs let those students seek alternatives that work for them. That’s all.

Parents ought to have that option. Opponents know that most parents agree. So they try to attack the program by claiming it costs too much. It doesn’t. What’s really costly is limiting children’s futures by forcing them to stay in schools that don’t work for them.