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Priscilla Chan, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC, speaks during the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018  on September 6, 2018 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Priscilla Chan, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC, speaks during the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 on September 6, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

What happens when you pay students to get ready for college? One state is about to find out, with help from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has a new tactic for helping more students get ready for college: paying them money as they take small steps in that direction.

CZI is helping Rhode Island try out the strategy, aimed at high-scoring students from low-income families in the state. It’s the latest foray into education giving for CZI, the organization founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, which has donated over $300 million to education causes since 2016. (CZI is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

The program, called Rhode2College and announced earlier this week, will work like this: Starting in 11th grade, students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch and who scored well on the 10th-grade PSAT will be able to earn money by completing certain tasks. Those include creating a list of potential colleges, scoring higher on the SAT than the PSAT, submitting a federal financial aid form, and submitting college applications, according to the program’s website.

The program will allow students to earn up to $2,000 total — $500 that is immediately accessible and $1,500 that is put in a saving account that students can tap into once they start college.

It’s a small but significant incentive in a state where tuition is about $14,000 a year for state residents at the University of Rhode Island.

“Together, we will provide Rhode Island students with resources and personalized learning, while also modeling a different approach to financial aid linked to college readiness,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

The Rhode Island initiative is in some ways consistent with CZI’s past approaches and in other ways novel. Though it’s not clear exactly how much the program will cost, a spokesperson for CZI said it is part of a nearly $14 million grant to the College Board, which administers the SAT. One task that can earn students money is studying for the SAT through Khan Academy, the online learning and test-prep platform that was part of CZI’s partnership with the College Board. (CZI also has a prior relationship with Rhode Island, granting $1.5 million to support its statewide push for personalized learning.)

Megan Geoghegan, a spokesperson for Rhode Island’s department of education, said no public funds have been spent on the program, for which 1,200 students will be eligible this year. “The first two cohorts will be funded by CZI, and if the program is successful, the state will continue funding the program in future years,” she said.

The program targets low-income students, who may have less access to college-prep resources. But because it determines eligibility based on students’ test scores, it will likely disportionately benefit low-income students who are white, given the racial disparities that show up on standardized tests even controlling for family income.

Research on this kind of incentive-based program for high school students is mixed, and the question of why certain programs seem to work and others don’t remains vexing. Some studies have suggested that paying students for doing specific things — or “inputs” — produces better results than paying students for outcomes, like test scores. Giving awards immediately may be preferable to doing so with a delay.

The Rhode Island approach includes all four tactics: short and longer-term payments, some based on completing discrete tasks and at least one based on a specific outcome (scoring better on the SAT than the PSAT).

Geoghegan said the initiative draws on research showing “that programs that provide individualized assistance and even low-cost incentives like the ones we’ve set forth can have comparable results to large-scale scholarship programs.”

She pointed to a study showing that offering low-income parents help completing financial aid forms boosted college attendance; two other studies, one of universities in Chile and another of K-12 schools in the U.S., found that providing more information to students about school performance can steer them toward better schools. (Some of this research was conducted by Brown University’s Justine Hastings, who the press release notes is helping to design and evaluate the new Rhode Island program.)

Meanwhile, the idea of encouraging high school students to do better in schools by promising to help pay for college isn’t new. Most prominently, LeBron James has promised to pay tuition at the University of Akron for students at the school he recently opened in that city. A number of places, most prominently Kalamazoo, Michigan, have created similar district-wide initiatives over the years. (The amount dedicated per student in these programs is usually significantly more than Rhode Island’s $2,000 ceiling.)

Research on such “promise” programs has generally been positive, particularly for black students, suggesting that in many cases they can boost students’ performance in high school as well as their chances of attending college.

But one study released last week by the Brookings Institution, came to less rosy conclusion: Students in some Milwaukee public schools were randomly assigned the opportunity to receive up $12,000 to pay for tuition at a public or private college if they met requirements for high school grades and attendance. The program appeared to have no effect on high school or college outcomes.