Some junior-high or high-school students might benefit from supplemental training, such as a coding course or extra tutoring, but need a push to participate. Basic economics would suggest that offering these students some money would increase the likelihood they’d show up for class.

But it’s important to include the parents in decision-making about this incentive, suggests research from Lahore School of Economics’ Hamna Ahmed and Zunia Tirmazee, University of Chicago PhD student Rebecca Wu, and Chicago Booth PhD student Emma Zhang. Moreover, in some cases it might help to pay the parents rather than their children, they conclude after running an experiment in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

“When we want to pay a student to take a skills course during school, we naturally think that paying the student directly will maximize the chances of completion,” Zhang says. This particularly applies when students are at least of high-school age and act as key decision-makers. But counterintuitively, Zhang says, “we find that among teenage girls in Pakistan, involving parents in any way actually boosts effort from the students.”

Zhang and her research colleagues designed their experiment around a Lahore program to improve young women’s digital skills.

Ninety-one percent of all young adults in Pakistan lack even the most basic tech skills, such as cutting and pasting text, according to the World Skills Clock, a monitoring tool put out by UNICEF and several partners. Girls are especially disadvantaged: in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, for every 100 young men who have rudimentary digital skills, only 42 young women do. The Pakistani government funds digital-skills training programs, which typically come with cash incentives. And yet a training program offered by the Punjab Skills Development Fund—the country’s largest such operation—reports that just 9 percent of women who enroll complete their course.

The researchers collaborated with the fund to recruit households with students attending eight girls-only government high schools and colleges in Lahore. Starting in December 2022, the research project enrolled 300 young women aged 16¬–22 in a six-week online program that offered a monetary incentive. The 3,000 Pakistani rupee payment (approximately USD$10) represented 7.5 percent of participants’ monthly household income, on average, and was disbursed upon completion of the program.

The researchers split the young women into six groups, changing for each one the distribution of the incentive—the money either went wholly to the daughter, wholly to the parents, or half to each—and the information shared with parents.

Money is important, but so is information 

In a field study, researchers tested an incentive scheme to increase completion rates among Pakistani girls taking a digital-skills training program. The researchers observed the biggest boost when they offered the full incentive to the girls’ parents but didn’t tell them that a portion could have been given to their daughters. (These parents were in a “partial information” group.) When parents had full information about the total incentive, completion rates also rose but remained more consistent regardless of the incentive amount.  

In terms of information sharing, the control group consisted of parents who received no payment and were not aware of the 3,000 rupee incentive offered to their daughters. They knew only that their daughters would take the course. The researchers note that this mimics how such programs often work—the student alone gets all the incentive information.

There were also two partial-information groups, in which parents weren’t told if their daughters would receive an incentive, or how much. The daughters could choose whether or not to share that information. Parents in one group were told they would receive 1,500 rupees but not that their daughters would receive the same amount. In the other group, the parents knew only that they would receive the full 3,000 rupees.

Parents in three full-information groups had a complete understanding of which payment structure applied to them. The daughters always had full information.

Ultimately, 119 students completed the program, and giving parents some money and limited information made a big difference in completion rates. In the control group, where only the students knew of the incentive, the completion rate was 16 percent, the researchers report. The researchers found higher completion rates in every treatment group as compared with the control group. Completion rates were similar across the three full information groups, ranging from about 23–26 percent.

But the most significant boost came in the group that let only parents know about the payment that was offered to them. Dangling 1,500 rupees in front of parents with partial information increased the completion rate over the control group by 7.5 percentage points. And in the partial-information group where parents got the entire 3,000 rupees, program completion rose by more than 16 percentage points, to more than double that of the control group.

This suggests that parents and students who were not in the full-information groups didn’t work together on incentive-related decisions, the researchers conclude. Payment targeting was meaningful only when parents and students did not have the same information. And in those cases, it made the most sense to target the parents, according to the researchers.

The study provides an important insight into how policy makers can more effectively target payments as well as offer seats for subsidized skills training programs, Zhang says, particularly in cases where participation can come with social stigma.

The findings suggest that if policy makers cannot easily share program information with both the parents and the children, they might increase program uptake and completion by targeting only the parents with incentive payments. However, if policy makers can create programs that allow for more information sharing between students and their parents, payment targeting needn’t be a big factor.

“If parents and students have full information,” Zhang says, “whoever gets paid doesn’t really matter, and policy makers can focus on the practicalities of disbursement.”

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