LJAF Announces Expanded Funding for Randomized Controlled Trials

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Laura and John Arnold Foundation announces expanded funding for low-cost randomized controlled trials to drive effective social spending

Washington, D.C.— December 7, 2015— The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) today announced additional funding for low- or modest-cost randomized controlled trials (RCTs) as part of its effort to expand the evidence base for “what works” in U.S. social spending. LJAF has committed to funding all proposals for RCTs of $100,000 to $300,000 that receive high ratings from its expert review panel. The funding criteria are outlined in the Request for Proposals.

Well-conducted RCTs are widely regarded as the most credible method of evaluating the effectiveness of social programs, but such studies are often assumed to be too expensive for practical use in most sectors. However, researchers have shown that in many instances, large, high-quality RCTs can be conducted at a fraction of the usual multimillion dollar cost, addressing a key obstacle to their widespread use.

One way to reduce costs is to measure outcomes using privacy-protected administrative data that are already being collected for other purposes. There are a number of available datasets, including student test scores on state exams, criminal arrest records, and earnings records. Researchers can significantly reduce the cost of evaluation by using these types of data rather than conducting expensive original data collection efforts such as interviews or tests. “The ability to build rigorous scientific evidence about what works at low cost could revolutionize social spending,” LJAF Vice President of Evidence-Based Policy Jon Baron said. “Conducting more low-cost studies would enable policy officials to dramatically increase the number of programs that are rigorously tested each year, so as to more rapidly identify those that produce important improvements in people’s lives.” 

LJAF is currently funding a multi-site RCT of Bottom Line, a program that provides one-on-one counseling with the goal of helping low-income, first-generation students enroll in and graduate from college. The study will measure college enrollment and completion outcomes for a sample of about 2,400 students over a seven-year period using administrative data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The total cost of the study is approximately $159,000—far below the typical price tag for such an RCT. Yet, it will produce a definitive answer about whether the program achieves its goals.

The Bottom Line RCT was one of the winners of the Low-Cost RCT Competition that LJAF and the Annie E. Casey Foundation funded over 2013-2015. The competition was developed in response to a White House and Office of Management and Budget call to action for evidence-based reforms across the federal government, and the competition winners were among studies highlighted at a White House conference on low-cost RCTs in July 2014.