Published: June 5, 2018

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2017-27


Emma Antrobus, Victoria Baranov, Deborah Cobb-Clark, Lorraine Mazerolle, and Agnieszka Tymula.

Non-Technical Summary:

Truancy is a costly social problem. Approximately 10–15% of students across a range of countries are classified as chronically absent from school. School absences are both predictors and symptoms of poor academic outcomes, decreased psychological well-being, illegal substances abuse, and antisocial or criminal behavior. Lowering truancy rates requires that we understand what drives students to regularly miss school without reasonable grounds.

Economic theory predicts that truancy rates will be higher for more impatient, present-biased and/or risk-taking individuals. Previous research strongly suggests that adolescents’ preferences shape their behavior and success at school. Interestingly, although parents are believed to play a large role in their children’s decision-making, the link between parental preferences and school outcomes has not been studied.

We take advantage of a unique randomized intervention of anti-truancy policy-school partnership program to study the role of preferences of parents and adolescents in school attendance decisions. In the program we study, the Ability School Engagement Program (ASEP), police and local schools in Queensland, Australia came together in a structured partnership to better engage truanting young people in school and reduce anti-social behavior. 102 families were randomly assigned to either ASEP or the business-as-usual control condition, and ASEP was previously shown to reduce truancy rates by approximately 6 percentage points or 25%. Our objective is to analyze whether time and risk preferences are related to adolescents’ propensity to be truant, whether the intervention impacted more malleable preferences, and whether preference measures may be used to identify subgroups of participants who benefitted more from the intervention.

We make an important contribution in focusing directly on young people with excessively high truancy rates living in an area characterized by significant socioeconomic disadvantage and high crime rates. Although such students are frequently the target of initiatives to raise school engagement, they are seldom captured in empirical research measuring economic preferences. This paper utilizes a sample of truanting adolescents from households who are often underrepresented in experimental studies and especially difficult to locate in longitudinal follow-up. Indeed, it took us over one year to locate the 100 participating families for the follow-up study. Therefore, our study is unique in both the longitudinal nature of the randomized trial and the embedded use of an incentivized risk and time preference elicitation. Additionally, we estimate the preferences of both adolescents and their parents in an incentive-compatible way, ensuring that the decisions that the participants make have real consequences.

Our results indicate that the intervention improved self-control in parents, though we find no evidence of it affecting the preferences of truanting adolescents nor the time and risk preferences of the parents. We also find the intervention is most effective for students with more risk averse parents. Whilst the small sample size remains a limitation, ASEP shows promise as an intervention that fosters increased school attendance especially among risk averse parents.


December 27, 2017