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Kelli A. Bird

Brian Heseung Kim, Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman.

Despite decades and hundreds of billions of dollars of federal and state investment in policies to promote postsecondary educational attainment as a key lever for increasing the economic mobility of lower-income populations, research continues to show large and meaningful differences in the mid-career earnings of students from families in the bottom and top income quintiles. Prior research has not disentangled whether these disparities are due to differential sorting into colleges and majors, or due to barriers lower socioeconomic status (SES) graduates encounter during the college-to-career transition. Using linked individual-level higher education and Unemployment Insurance (UI) records for nearly a decade of students from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), we compare the labor market outcomes of higher- and lower-SES community college graduates within the same college, program, and academic performance level. Our analyses show that, conditional on employment, lower-SES graduates earn nearly $500/quarter less than their higher-SES peers one year after graduation, relative to higher-SES graduate average of $10,846/quarter. The magnitude of this disparity persists through at least three years after graduation. Disparities are concentrated among non-Nursing programs, in which gaps persist seven years from graduation. Our results highlight the importance of greater focus on the college-to-career transition.

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Andrew C. Barr, Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, William L. Skimmyhorn.

Non-traditional students disproportionately enroll in institutions with weaker graduation and earnings outcomes. One hypothesis is that these students would have made different choices had they been provided with better information or supports during the decision-making process. We conducted a large-scale, multi-arm field experiment with the U.S. Army to investigate whether personalized information and the offer of advising assistance affect postsecondary choices and attainment among non-traditional adult populations. We provided U.S. Army service members transitioning out of the military with a package of research-based information and prompts, including quality and cost information on a personalized set of matched colleges, messages targeted at addressing veteran-specific concerns or needs, and reminders about key stages in the college and financial aid application process. For a randomly selected subset of the experimental sample, we also provided service members with opportunities to connect with a college advisor. We find no overall impact of the intervention on whether service members enroll in college, on the quality of their college enrollment, or on their persistence in college. We find suggestive evidence of a modest increase in degree completion within the period of observation, with these impacts mainly driven by increased attainment at for-profit institutions. Our results suggest that influencing non-traditional populations’ educational decisions and outcomes will require substantially more intensive programs and significant resources.

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Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Gabrielle Lohner.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an abrupt shift from in-person to virtual instruction in Spring 2020. We use two complementary difference-in differences frameworks, one that leverages within-instructor-by-course variation on whether students started their Spring 2020 courses in person or online and another that incorporates student fixed effects. We estimate the impact of this shift on the academic performance of Virginia’s community college students. With both approaches, we find modest negative impacts (three to six percent) on course completion. Our results suggest that faculty experience teaching a given course online does not mitigate the negative effects. In an exploratory analysis, we find minimal long-term impacts of the switch to online instruction.

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Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Brett Fischer, Benjamin T. Skinner.

Recent state policy efforts have focused on increasing attainment among adults with some college but no degree (SCND). Yet little is actually known about the SCND population. Using data from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), we provide the first detailed profile on the academic, employment, and earnings trajectories of the SCND population, and how these compare to VCCS graduates. We show that the share of SCND students who are academically ready to reenroll and would benefit from doing so may be substantially lower than policy makers anticipate. Specifically, we estimate that few SCND students (approximately three percent) could fairly easily re-enroll in fields of study from which they could reasonably expect a sizable earnings premium from completing their degree.

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Katharine Meyer, Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman.
With rapid technological transformations to the labor market, many working adults return to college after graduation to obtain additional training or credentials. Using a comparative individual fixed effects strategy and an administrative panel dataset of enrollment and employment in Virginia, we provide the first causal estimates of credential “stacking” – earning two or more community college certificates or degrees – among working adults. We find stacking increases employment by four percentage points and quarterly wages by $375 (four percent). Returns are larger for individuals studying in Health and who return to college after first completing a short-term certificate.

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Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Zachary Mabel, Yifeng Song.

Colleges have increasingly turned to predictive analytics to target at-risk students for additional support. Most of the predictive analytic applications in higher education are proprietary, with private companies offering little transparency about their underlying models. We address this lack of transparency by systematically comparing two important dimensions: (1) different approaches to sample and variable construction and how these affect model accuracy; and (2) how the selection of predictive modeling approaches, ranging from methods many institutional researchers would be familiar with to more complex machine learning methods, impacts model performance and the stability of predicted scores. The relative ranking of students’ predicted probability of completing college varies substantially across modeling approaches. While we observe substantial gains in performance from models trained on a sample structured to represent the typical enrollment spells of students and with a robust set of predictors, we observe similar performance between the simplest and most complex models.

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Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Jeffrey T. Denning, Joshua Goodman, Cait Lamberton, Kelly Ochs Rosinger.

Do nudge interventions that have generated positive impacts at a local level maintain efficacy when scaled state or nationwide? What specific mechanisms explain the positive impacts of promising smaller-scale nudges? We investigate, through two randomized controlled trials, the impact of a national and state-level campaign to encourage students to apply for financial aid for college. The campaigns collectively reached over 800,000 students, with multiple treatment arms to investigate different potential mechanisms. We find no impacts on financial aid receipt or college enrollment overall or for any student subgroups. We find no evidence that different approaches to message framing, delivery, or timing, or access to one-on-one advising affected campaign efficacy. We discuss why nudge strategies that work locally may be hard to scale effectively.

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Andrew C. Barr, Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman.

Student loan borrowing for higher education has emerged as a top policy concern. Policy makers at the institutional, state, and federal levels have pursued a variety of strategies to inform students about loan origination processes and how much a student has cumulatively borrowed, and to provide students with greater access to loan counseling. We conducted an experiment to evaluate the impact of an outreach campaign that prompted loan applicants at a large community college to make informed and active borrowing decisions and that offered them access to remote, one-onone assistance from a loan counselor. The intervention led students to reduce their unsubsidized loan borrowing by 7 percent, resulted in worse academic performance, and increased the likelihood of loan default during the three years after the intervention occurred. Our results suggest policy makers and higher education leaders should carefully examine the potential unintended consequences of efforts to reduce student borrowing, particularly in light of growing evidence regarding the counter-intuitive positive relationship between reduced borrowing levels and worse student academic and financial outcomes.

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Andrew C. Barr, Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, William Skimmyhorn.

Despite broad public interest in Veterans' education, there is relatively little evidence documenting the postsecondary trajectories of military service members after they return to civilian life. In the current report we investigate how U.S. Army service member college enrollment and progression trends compare to a similar population of civilians, using Army administrative personnel data merged with administrative records from the National Student Clearinghouse and the Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS) of 2002. Civilians were nearly three times as likely to enroll in college within one year of high school graduation (or one year of separation). Civilians were also much more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within the period of study than either of the Army samples. While members of minority race/ethnicity groups in both military samples enroll at higher rates than their white counterparts, racial/ethnic minorities do not graduate at higher rates than their white counterparts. We discuss policy implications of our analyses in the final section of our paper.

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