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Returns to Secondary Schooling in Ghana

Development Challenge

While primary school completion rates have increased dramatically across Sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, secondary school enrollment remains low. In 2007, the region’s secondary enrolment ratio was the lowest in the world at 34 percent. Although there is an increasing focus on expanding access to secondary education in the region, there are still open questions about the benefits of secondary education relative to the high associated costs. The role of primary education as an important driver of growth and development has been well studied and understood, but there is very little evidence of the benefits of secondary education. It is hypothesized that secondary education could have a much larger impact than primary education on long-term earnings, health, fertility, gender equality, and civic and political participation. However, expanding secondary education is also significantly more expensive than providing free primary education, and there is a much larger opportunity cost to families in terms of taking students out of the workforce. This study is looking at the impacts of lowering the financial barriers to secondary school enrollment and the returns to secondary education on long-term employment and health outcomes.


In 2011, the gross secondary school enrollment rate in Ghana was 58 percent. The direct costs of fees and materials (around US$350 over four years in Ghana) as well as the opportunity costs to families of taking youth out of the workforce may be contributing factors to the low secondary school enrollment.

Evaluation Strategy

Researchers are evaluating the impact of scholarships on secondary school enrollment, and the returns to secondary education in Ghana over the following ten-year period. They identified a cohort of 2,064 students who earned admission into a four-year secondary school but had not enrolled by fall 2008 due to financial constraints. From this cohort, 682 students were selected by lottery to receive a scholarship that covered 100 percent of the tuition and fees at a local public secondary school. The scholarships were announced during the 2008-2009 academic year; over 75 percent of scholarship winners enrolled in secondary school that year.

At the beginning of the study, a baseline survey was administered to all participating youth and their guardians. At the time, the youth ranged between 13 and 25 years old, with an average age of 17 years. Study participants were given a cell phone, and once a year, researchers attempt to call all participants in order to update their contact information and ask for their current schooling status and location. If participants cannot be reached over the phone, researchers attempt to find them by visiting their home area.

Results and Policy Implications

Preliminary data indicates that offering scholarships increased enrollment in secondary school. Seventy-five percent of scholarship winners enrolled in secondary school during the 2008-2009 school year, almost four times the enrollment rate in the comparison group. Three years later, the enrollment rate was still twice as high among those that received scholarship (73 percent on average) compared to those who did not. However, the enrollment rate was higher among boys (81 percent) than among girls (64 percent).

The lower enrollment rate among girls, among both the scholarship winners and the comparison group, may be due, at least in part, to the fact that a subset of girls in the study sample had already been out of school for more than a year when the study started, while all the boys had finished primary school the year prior to the start of the study.

This is an ongoing, long-term project. Data on the impact of secondary education on labor market outcomes, health, marriage and fertility, time and risk preferences, technology adoption, and civic participation will be collected through 2018.


2008 - 2018

Photo credit: Ishita Ahmed (J-PAL)