The Impact of Peer Pressure On Student Achievement

I just ran across this National Bureau of Economic Research paper  called “How Does Peer Pressure Affect Educational Investments?”  Authors Leonardo Bursztyn and Robert Jensen took two  groups  of 11th graders and offered them  free SAT prep courses.  One group had to sign up publicly, in full view of peers, and the other group signed up confidentially.  The experiment was conducted in both honors and non-honors classes.  The authors write, “In non-honors classes, the signup rate was 11 percentage points lower when decisions to enroll were public rather than private.”  There was no change in honors classes.

To further isolate the impact of peer pressure, the authors studied a group of students enrolled in both honors and non-honors classes, offering again a free SAT prep course.

When offered the course in a non-honors class, these students were 25 percentage points less likely to sign up if the decision was public rather than private. But if they were offered the course in one of their honors classes, they were 25 percentage points more likely to sign up when the decision was public. Thus, students are highly responsive to who their peers are and what the prevailing norm is when they make decisions.

They conclude,

Peer pressure appears to be a powerful force affecting educational choices and whether students undertake important investments that could improve academic performance or outcomes. In our case, in non-honors classes, even very low-income students are willing to forgo free access to an SAT prep course that could improve their educational and possibly later life outcomes, solely in order to avoid having their peers know about it.

In other words, peer pressure profoundly affects student willingness to accept opportunities that may lead to more post-secondary options. Whatever else you can glean from this experiment, it’s a powerful argument for  school choice programs that allow families to enroll children in schools outside their zip code.

What do you think?


  1. Thanks for commenting, Bruce. Yes, it's certainly a tricky matter and self-sorting happens in all sorts of ways. (see here:

    But you also have to consider Doug Massey's work, where families in Camden signed up for affordable housing in Mt. Laurel. The children in families that won this lottery achieved far more in school than the kids who lost the lottery and remained in Camden traditional schools. It's hard to argue that the kids who moved to Mt. Laurel should have stayed in Camden in order to not “exacerbate sorting,” isn't it?

  2. You need to understand that there are flip sides to this coin. See:

    Yes, concentrating high performing peers together can create pressure for them to perform even more highly. Peer effect is a critical missing measure in studies that purport to show charter effectiveness (CREDO NJ for example) – because it's really hard to separate “school effect” from “peer effect” [because “peers” are an integral part of the “school”] Clearly, schools like North Star that serve substantively different student populations than district schools, and shed “weak” non-compliant students (& their parents) at astounding rates, create peer conditions that are advantageous to those few (50% or so) who actually make it through.

    But, in a context where some institutions, be they charter or magnet or private schools, skim and retain favorable peers, that necessarily means that other schools are serving concentrations of less favorable peers. It's a tricky balance. What advantages some, necessarily disadvantages others.

    Choice programs in general exacerbate that sorting (not that they necessarily have to, but in practice, they do). Note that most choice programs adopted in policy don't create real mixing/diffusion across truly diverse neighborhoods. We don't generally let the kids from Camden go to Haddonfield. Rather, we let the kids from Camden sort amongst themselves. Same w/Newark. And that sorting, to the extent that it creates some clusters of more advantaged (less disadvantaged shall we say) populations, simultaneously leads to clustering of severe disadvantage elsewhere.

    This study of peer effect is hardly a strong endorsement (or any kind of endorsement) of choice programs as commonly adopted.

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