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.
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.