In 2003, Kenya abolished user fees in all government primary schools. Contrary to expectations, though, net enrollment in government schools stagnated in the years following the introduction of Kenya's “Free Primary Education” (FPE) policy.
The trends for private schools were even more surprising: in the wake of FPE, both enrollment levels and fee rates in Kenya's private primary schools more than doubled. This co-movement of enrollment and fees in the unregulated private sector suggests a dramatic increase in demand for private education.
The authors of this paper argue that social interactions explain why demand for private schooling went up when the price of government schooling went down. Households responded to FPE differently on the basis of their relative wealth. Pupils from poorer households were more likely to attend government schools under FPE while their more affluent peers were likely to go to private schools after the reform. As marginal pupils entered government schools through one door, affluent pupils exited through the other door.
The good news for policymakers is that, despite stagnant public enrollment numbers, FPE was largely successful in improving educational access. Enrollment among less-educated households did increase modestly. And funding levels were maintained by central government grants that more than compensated for the foregone fees in the vast majority of schools. The bad news is that abolishing fees is simply not enough to achieve enrollment goals such as universal primary education. A focus on improving academic quality appears necessary not only to increase learning and test scores, but also to raise enrollment. Even in a poor country like Kenya, abolishing fees for government schools was not sufficient to boost enrollment in public schools.
Data disclosure: The data and code underlying the analysis in this paper are available as a data set.