Incentives to Learn

Among girls In Kenyan primary schools, merit-based scholarships are a cost-effective way to raise student test scores, improve attendance, and encourage a lasting commitment to education.


While merit-based scholarships are in many educational systems, debates exist on the equity and efficacy of these incentives to learn. Many educators fear that such programs exacerbate inequality by rewarding students with pre-existing socioeconomic advantages, or by not encouraging sustained changes to educational behavior once these scholarships are removed. Proponents point to merit based scholarships encouraging greater effort among students. This study considers the impacts of a merit-based scholarship program for primary school girls in two neighboring Kenyan districts, assessing how merit scholarships impact girls’ educational achievement.


Awarding merit-based scholarships to girls improved both girls’ and boys’ learning. Specifically:

  • Overall, girls’ test scores improved by .19 standard deviations when they had the opportunity to win a merit based scholarship.
  • In schools where some girls received merit-based scholarships, all female students saw some academic improvements. Even those with low baseline test scores who were least likely to win scholarships saw test scores improve by .12 standard deviations on average. However, scholarship recipients (high achievers) were more likely to have the advantage of parents with higher educational attainment.
  • Teacher attendance improved by at least 4.8% in treatment schools, which is associated with an 11% improvement in student test scores. This gain translates to approximately half of the improvement in test scores for both girls and boys.
  • Test scores also improved among male students, despite their ineligibility for the scholarships. These effects could be attributable to higher teacher attendance or positive peer effects.

Overall, researchers estimate the program’s positive impact on academic performance to be equal to an additional 0.2 grades of primary school learning. Despite these significant gains, it is important to note that the larger, richer districts demonstrated significantly higher test scores than the poorer districts after the intervention.


This study evaluated the impact of The Girls Scholarship Program (GSP). Undertaken in two neighboring rural districts in Kenya by the Dutch NGO ICS Africa, GSP scholarships were awarded in each district to 15 percent of sixth grade girls with the highest scores on national exams, covering school fees and school supplies. Of 127 sample primary schools, 64 were invited and chose to participate in the program. The treatment schools were assigned through stratified randomization. Researchers compared test scores among treatment and control schools following the collection of baseline attendance and exam score data. They also used survey data on household characteristics and student study habits, as well as attendance data obtained through four unannounced visits to participating schools by ICS Africa.

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