Boston students who attend suburban districts as part of Metco, a voluntary racial integration program, outperformed their peers in Boston Public Schools on nearly every measure over the last three decades, according to a new study from Tufts University.
The study, entitled “Impacts of the Metco Program” and led by Elizabeth Setren, an assistant professor of economics at Tufts, offers the most comprehensive review ever of the more than 50-year-old program. It collected data on students who were enrolled in the program between 1990 and 2020 and compared them against those who didn’t get in.
The study determined that Metco students were more likely to attend college, graduate from four-year schools, and earn more after graduation than their peers in Boston Public Schools. The study also found stronger gains for boys in Metco than girls and for Metco students whose parents didn’t go to college than those whose parents have college degrees.
“The findings are incredibly large in particular for students who are the first generation in their families to go to college,” she said. “They are going from an environment where it’s a question of whether to go to college or not to an environment where the question is where are you going to go to college.”
Milly Arbaje-Thomas, chief executive officer of Metco Inc., said the results were “eye opening.”
“One thing we heard from the findings is that this program is definitely closing achievement gaps for Black and brown students from Boston,” she said.
The study adds to a growing body of research documenting the academic benefits Boston students of color experience when they take part in Metco, which started in 1966, well before court-ordered busing caused racial tensions in Boston to flare.
There’s still more suburban districts can do to boost the future outcome of Metco students, according to the Tufts study. The research indicates, for instance, Metco students don’t have the same level of access in suburban schools to the most rigorous college-level courses, like Advanced Placement, and are suspended at higher rates than their suburban peers. Metco and the suburban districts intend to address disparities between Metco students and their suburban peers, according to Arbaje-Thomas.
About two-thirds of Metco students from Boston are Black and a quarter are Latino, while 2 percent are Asian American, according to state data.
The study, which was conducted independently of Metco, was years in the making. Setren said her upbringing in Baltimore County, Maryland, and the racial segregation that existed in schools there sparked her interest in examining the effects of Metco, which involves 33 suburban districts.
There are vast differences in outcomes on many measures for students who get into Metco and those who do not.
“Attending suburban Metco schools increases four-year college aspirations and enrollment by 17 percentage points each,” the study said. “Students are more likely to enroll in all but the most competitive colleges. Metco results in a 6-percentage point increase in 4-year college graduation rates and leads to increased earnings and employment in Massachusetts at age 25 through 35.”
Metco students also score higher on the math and English Language Arts MCAS in grades 3 through 10, although they still trail the state average, the study found.
“Students score 50 percent closer to the state average for Math and two-thirds closer to the state average for ELA by 10th grade because of program participation,” the study found.
Metco students drop out 50 percent less often than their Boston peers, according to the study, and students score 30 percent higher on the SAT. Metco students are not more likely to score above 1,200, researchers found, and the program has “no impact” on Advanced Placement exam taking or scores.
Students are admitted to the program each year via a lottery and application process. In an effort to give disadvantaged students an edge in the application process in 2022, Metco stopped requiring applicants to submit their school records. Prior to 2019, students got into Metco on a first-come-first-serve basis, which led to long waiting lists and applications from families as soon as their children were born.
To arrive at their findings, the Tufts researchers matched Metco applicants with state data on school enrollment, demographics, and K-12 outcomes. College outcome data came from the National Student Clearinghouse,.
Researchers also partnered with the state Department of Unemployment Assistance and state education officials to obtain earnings and employment data from 2010 to 2023.
State Representative Christopher Worrell, a former Metco student, said the findings resonated with his experience attending schools in the Lincoln and Lincoln-Sudbury districts and the high academic standards there. He graduated from Lincoln-Sudbury in 2004.
”You are striving to do better and match that energy,” said Worrell, who now has two children attending Metco in Newton. “It was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.”