Monday, March 23, 2009

"Buying your way into college.Private tuition and the transition into higher education in Ireland "

This paper by Emer Smyth from the ESRI was recently published in the Oxford Review of Education. The research looks into whether participation in "shadow education"; private education outside of the schooling system results in enhanced leaving certificate performance. An initial simple cross tabulation indicates fairly significant benefits from shadow education. However, after controlling for selection into this group (by gender, social class, parental education), previous ability (junior certificate results), educational aspirations and homework hours this paper finds the surprising result that there is no advantage to shadow education.


Colm Harmon said...

I have not read it, but if I get the story right what goes on here is that by controlling for academic ability the impact of extra tuition vanishes. So smarter kids who are more motivated (or have more motivated parents!) didn't need the extra tuition after all so it was deadweight of sorts for them.

I guess the issue is whether the extra tuition can compensate for poor teaching raising the boats for some students. Or, related to this, that the sample observed in extra tuition are themselves a non-random snapshot of the student body - i.e. wealthier background kids.

I look forward to reading this in more detail

Alan Fernihough said...

Hey Cathy - the link doesn't appear to be working.

I would be very interested to see how the authors considers/corrects for the practices that these educational institutes have been known to engage in for the purposes of biasing their average student results.

In short- creaming.

I am aware of one shadow institute that only lets the higher performing students use their buildings as an exam centre. Poorer performing students are made go to another exam centre and the institute thus bumps up their leaving cert average. This statistic might not be a true reflection of the institute's quality, but hey it sure looks good on a colorful, shiny brochures!

Cathy Redmond said...

Apologies for the broken link, I've edited it and it should be ok now. Thanks Alan.

Liam Delaney said...

its a very interesting paper.

the basic result is that controlling for socioeconomic status (as well as gender) and school background substantially reduces the impact of private tuition and grades.

in one sense this is compelling as it is highly unlikely that taking grinds are affecting any of the other measures.

It is worth thinking a little further about what ability is doing in these equations. One thing that might be happening is that students from "better" schools and more wealthy and educated backgrounds are simply more able by the time they receive private tuition and need the classes less thus lowering the return. However, if we could look at the students who were not so able (as measured by what though I suppose?), you might still find a high return for the less able students from wealthy backgrounds even if the overall return is lower than thought.

the basic story about there being a lot of students who already have pretty much every educational advantage they need purchasing this extra bit even though the returns are low does accord with common sense. In some sense, private tuition has started to feel more like it is being driven by peer effects and things like extreme loss aversion and regret aversion rather than fully calculated consumer behaviour. Although, it should be said that the paper still finds some effect so perhaps even this marginal effect might be worth paying for.

Kevin Denny said...

This sounds like some really interesting research on education in Ireland.At the risk of being provocative, something of a rarity! Alan's "creaming" hypothesis is compelling.
Lets say, for arguments sake, that grinds do help get you into college. What then? Maybe if you need grinds to get you those extra LC points, that once you are in you may not do so well since you are now on your own. This is not a random conjecture: I have seen unpublished evidence to suggest it.
Even if grinds do nothing,its a one-way bet probably so if you are well off/motivated its probably worth a try.

Mark McG said...

A bit off topic, but a woman on Q&A last night proposed that college fees only apply to those coming from fee paying schools, which seemed like an interesting suggestion.

Liam Delaney said...

Not a good solution - nearly all the suggestions to restrict fees to groups based on schools and parents income and so on seem very dubious to me. One mechanism that might stand up is one I haven't seen before but sounds at least legal. It could involve letting parents write off the fees at different rates against their taxes, with lower income people being allowed to write off more. Arrangements where the student pays fees on the basis of parents income just seem unsound to me. Certainly charging more because you went to a certain school would not stand up.

Kevin Denny said...

Unsound in what sense? That was precisely the system we had for decades until fees were abolished since local authority grants [which paid the fees] were based on parents' income. It was a system which worked reasonably well. Presumably that's why they abolished it. I am not aware of any challenges to its legality. Thats just a red herring that middle class opponents of fees put out.
Allowing the tax write-off of fees to depend on income would amount to the same principle.

Martin Ryan said...

So controlling for socioeconomic status (as well as gender) and school background substantially reduces the impact of (extra) private tuition. What certainly seems most provocative is Alan's creaming hypotheis; also over 60% of top schools limit admission to certain groups, as mentioned in this IT article:

This draws attention to the wider issue of private second-level schooling in Ireland, not just (extra) private tuition. Whether or not private second-level schooling confers an advantage in the points race (and I would like to see some research on this), I think we need a real debate on whether the state should continue to pay the salaries of teachers in private schools at second-level.

This especially merits consideration since the abolition of third-level tuition fees, given the possibility that fee-abolition has seen a reallocation of family resources from university fees to second level fees. I would also like to see some research on this issue, as there is an obvious structural break (I must give credit to my friend Eoin who put this hypothesis forward to me formally and who is keen on testing it).

In relation to the suggestion that was made by an audience member on Questions and Answers last night -that families who pay second-level fees should also pay third-level fees, it also doesn’t allow for shocks to income. But it the argumnet itself serves to highlight to people that the abolition of fees may have seen a reallocation of family resources from university fees to second level fees, then its worth putting into the debate.

Kevin, in relation to your point, I'm going to start using a new wave of the IUS data to examine the associations between LC points, non-cognitive ability and self-reported GPA in college (as well as time use). I think the production structure is that study time, previous test scores and non-cog ability will determine college GPA.

While there is the possibility that previous tests scores may be somehow affected by extra tuition (and of course the ESRI paper seems to indicate against this), there is also the wider issue that the LC exam syatem is much different to the college exam system. Though as devil's advocate I would also suggest that we need to be skeptical about this too.

Martin Ryan said...


Based on your comments, I see that you are implying that we have no counterfactual i.e. what would happen if extra private tuition was somehow offered as a treatment to students who would never buy it in the first place...

Martin Ryan said...

IT article:


Liam Delaney said...

unsound in the sense that these applicants are in general adults. How can you make the entitlement of an adult depend on their parents? what if the students dont receive any support for their parents? why would this not apply to any other benefit?

Kevin Denny said...

we had such a system for decades & no obvious problems.doh

Martin Ryan said...


I take your point that means-tested fee waiver and grant eligibility worked may have had no obvious problems, but I just wanted to clarify that there were deep-rooted problems (well documented by Donal de Butleir in a 1993 report) about fairness in the system. It was proposed that family assets, including businesses and large farms, be taken into account as well as declared taxable income when eligibility for maintenance grants is being calculated. The means testing of higher education maintenance grants has not been reformed since the De Buitleir recommendation was made. An OECD panel of international experts looked at the De Buitleir recommendation in 2005 and strongly urged that it be implemented.

There are also concerns about the fact that responsibility for student financial support is devolved to 35 institutions and 57 communities, and has led to significant variations in how funding is allocated. With the Student Assistance Fund for example, some institutions operate closing dates, while others do not, some institutions means-test applicants whereas others do not (NOEAHE, 2005).

The government planned to reform the system of higher education grant payments for the academic year 2007/08, but failed to introduce the proposed Student Support Bill that would have introduced the reform (Union of Students in Ireland, 2007).

While some aspects of the need for reform in the grant system (accounting for assets and centralisation of administration) might be viewed as somewhat 'Irish' problems, there are also issues that I have mentioned before on the blog - which may be shared more so by other countries. These are the level of the grant being way below conservative estimates for student living costs, as well as the eligibility threshold for grant qualification being too low. And in general, there does not seem to be any systematic effort to protect the level of the grant or the eligibility threshold against inflation.

All of the above can be used to justify an argument that a student loan system will be the paragon of fairness. A student loan system eliminates the family circumstance as a concern (and re-distribution of family wealth can still be implemented through the taxation system).