Giving Kids Bikes Can Reduce Drop-Out Rates

A hipster-esque solution to a tough problem in India proves surprisingly effective.

Indian schoolgirls ride bicycles, received under a Bihar state government program, on the outskirts of Patna, India. (Prashant Ravi/Reuters)

In countries where not enough girls are going to school, NGOs and policymakers have tried everything: giving people money as an inducement, building more schools, trying to make sure kids are safer as they walk to class -- you name it.

In India's northeastern state of Bihar -- one of the country's poorest regions -- just 53 percent of women were literate, a rate 20 percentage points lower than that of its men. School is expensive for most and too far away for many, and by age 16, only about 45 percent of girls are still enrolled, compared with about 65 percent of boys.

"We found that the high school dropout rate soared when girls reached the ninth grade. This was primarily because there are fewer high schools and girls had to travel longer distances to get to school," said Anjani Kumar Singh, Bihar's principal secretary overseeing education.

Here's a chart showing how female school enrollment drops off, particularly for girls, as they get older:

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So in 2006, the state's government tried a different, more vehicular solution: they gave all 9th-grade girls money to buy a bicycle in order to make the trek to class a little easier.

The move was very politically popular (free bikes for everyone!), but a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research quantified its positive impact on female education in Bihar.

The authors found it increased the likelihood that the girls would stay in school by 30 percent, and it reduced the gender gap between male and female enrollment by 40 percent.

We find that the rate of age-appropriate participation in secondary school for girls increases by 30 percent in cohorts exposed to the Cycle program ... and also find strong evidence to suggest that the mechanism of impact was the reduction in the 'distance cost' of attending school induced by the bicycle. We find a significant increase in the number of girls who appear for the SSC exam, suggesting that the increase in enrollment was not just on paper, but led to a real increase in school participation.

It wasn't just easier for the girls to get to school with their new wheels. Tying the money to the bikes meant the girls' families couldn't spend it on other household goods, and since so many students received bikes at once, it made it much more likely that they would ride in groups and thus increase the safety of their commute. It was also a pretty good bargain for the government, at only $50 a student.

"The Cycle program appears to have been quite unique in its ability to effectively provide a non-fungible transfer to girls that was not captured by either households or officials," the NBER authors write, "and which thereby reduced the daily cost of school attendance for girls."

I've been occasionally skeptical of technological solutionism for development issues, but it's refreshing when the solutions are actually low-tech things that are relatively easy to obtain (and maintain) in those countries. And it's even better when they actually work.