The Unintended Effects of Expanding Educational Access

IPR associate Nicola Bianchi finds evidence in Italy's 1961 education reform

Italian high school
How does increasing educational access affect learning? IPR associate Nicola Bianchi investigates.

The “College for All” movement, the idea that every high school student should have access to higher education, has become a hot-button topic in recent years. But does increasing access to education always lead to positive effects? Not necessarily, finds economist and IPR associate Nicola Bianchi, who studied an Italian reform that drastically increased enrollment in college-level STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs in the 1960s. Tracking data for thousands of students affected by the reform, Bianchi unearthed the unintended consequences of making education more accessible.

Prior to 1961, Italian high schools were divided so that only graduates of university-prep schools could attend university and enroll in the major of their choice. With the education reform in 1961, graduates of technical high schools, designed to train industry-sector professionals, were allowed to enroll in STEM majors at universities for the first time.

Nicola Bianchi

This policy change resulted in a 216 percent increase in students enrolled in STEM programs, a spike in enrollment that is “quite unusual,” said Bianchi.

Looking at the effects of the reform on learning, he found that increased enrollment in STEM majors was not matched by an increase in university resources, leading to overcrowding, fewer resources per student, and a lower-quality learning experience. 

Not only did the influx of new students stretch university resources, students entering STEM majors for the first time in 1961 had not been prepared for these programs during high school. Bianchi discovered that the change in classroom composition caused by the influx of new students led to less effective teaching and had negative effects on learning.

Additionally, graduates of university-prep schools were less likely to enroll in STEM majors following the reform. Enrollment for this group dropped between 1961 and 1968, even as overall enrollment in STEM majors grew.

Bianchi also looked at students’ income later in life to measure the policy’s long-term effects beyond the classroom. He found that students who enrolled in STEM majors following the reform actually earned less in the long run than they would have absent the 1960s reform.

Though the reform achieved its purpose of increasing access to STEM majors, there were a number of unintended consequences, including overcrowding and negative peer effects, which hurt “even those students who should have benefited most from these policies,” he explained.

“It is important to understand how education policies—in particular, increasing access to education—affect how students learn,” Bianchi concluded, adding that “indirect effects need to be taken into account” when it comes to any policy aimed at expanding educational access.

Nicola Bianchi is an assistant professor of strategy at the Kellogg School of Management and an IPR associate. The paper, "The Effects of Educational Expansions: Evidence from a Large Enrollment Increase in STEM Majors," can be found here.

Photo credit: Georges Jansoone.