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Post-secondary education

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. Using two complementary difference-in-differences frameworks, one that incorporates student fixed effects and another that leverages within-course variation on whether students started their Spring 2020 courses in-person or online, 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 (four to eight percent) on course completion. Our results suggest that faculty experience teaching a given course online does not mitigate the negative effects of students abruptly switching to online instruction.

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Lauren Russell, Lei Yu, Michael J. Andrews.

We investigate how the presence of a college affects local educational attainment using historical natural experiments in which "runner-up" locations were strongly considered to become college sites but ultimately not chosen for as-good-as-random reasons. While runner-up counties have since had opportunity to establish their own colleges, winners are still more likely to have a college today. Using this variation, we find that winning counties today have college degree attainment rates 58% higher than runner-up counties and have larger shares of employment in high human capital sectors. These effects are not driven primarily by college employees, migration, or local development.

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Emanuele Bardelli, Matthew Ronfeldt, John Papay.

Many prior studies have examined whether there are average differences in levels of teaching effectiveness among graduates from different teacher preparation programs (TPPs); other studies have investigated which features of preparation predict graduates’ average levels of teaching effectiveness. This is the first study to examine whether there are average differences between TPPs in terms of graduates’ average growth, rather than levels, in teaching effectiveness, and to consider which features predict this growth. Examining all graduates from Tennessee TPPs from 2010 to 2018, we find meaningful differences between TPPs in terms of both levels and growth in teaching effectiveness. We also find that different TPP features, including areas of endorsement, program type, clinical placement type and length, program size, and faculty composition explain part of these differences. Yet, the features that predict initial teaching effectiveness are not the same features that predict growth.

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Alex Eble, Feng Hu.

The quality of college education is hard for students and employers to observe. Knowing this, in the last 40 years over 1,000 colleges in the US and China alone have changed their names to signal higher quality. We study how these changes affect college choice and labor market performance of college graduates. Using administrative data, we show that colleges which change their names enroll higher-aptitude students and the effects persist over time. These effects are larger for attractive but misleading name changes, and larger among students with less information about the college. In a large resume audit study of the labor market for recent graduates, we find a small, insignificant premium for applicants listing new college names in most jobs, but a penalty in low-pay, low-status jobs. To better understand these results, we analyze scraped online text data, survey data, and other administrative data. These show that while many college applicants lack important information about college quality, employers can see that college name changes lead to an increase in graduate aptitude. Our study demonstrates that signals designed to change perception can have real, lasting impacts on market outcomes.

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Oded Gurantz, Ryan Sakoda, Shayak Sarkar.

This paper examines how financial aid reform based on postsecondary institutional performance impacts student choice. Federal and state regulations often reflect concerns about the private, for-profit sector's poor employment outcomes and high loan defaults, despite the sector's possible theoretical advantages. We use student level data to examine how eliminating public subsidies to attend low-performing for-profit institutions impacts students' college enrollment and completion behavior. Beginning in 2011, California tightened eligibility standards for their state aid program, effectively eliminating most for-profit eligibility. Linking data on aid application to administrative payment and postsecondary enrollment records, this paper utilizes a differences-in-differences strategy to investigate students' enrollment and degree completion responses to changes in subsidies. We find that restricting the use of the Cal Grant at for-profit institutions resulted in significant state savings but led to relatively small changes in students' postsecondary trajectories. For older, non-traditional students we find no impact on enrollment or degree completion outcomes. Similarly, for high school graduates, we find that for-profit enrollment remains strong. Unlike the older, non-traditional students, however, there is some evidence of declines in for-profit degree completion and increased enrollment at community colleges among the high school graduates, but these results are fairly small and sensitive to empirical specification. Overall, our results suggest that both traditional and non-traditional students have relatively inelastic preferences for for-profit colleges under aid-restricting policies.

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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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Matthew D. Baird, John Engberg, Isaac M. Opper.

We consider the case in which the number of seats in a program is limited, such as a job training program or a supplemental tutoring program, and explore the implications that peer effects have for which individuals should be assigned to the limited seats. In the frequently-studied case in which all applicants are assigned to a group, the average outcome is not changed by shuffling the group assignments if the peer effect is linear in the average composition of peers. However, when there are fewer seats than applicants, the presence of linear-in-means peer effects can dramatically influence the optimal choice of who gets to participate. We illustrate how peer effects impact optimal seat assignment, both under a general social welfare function and under two commonly used social welfare functions. We next use data from a recent job training RCT to provide the first evidence of large peer effects in the context of job training for disadvantaged adults. Finally, we combine the two results to show that the program's effectiveness varies greatly depending on whether the assignment choices account for or ignore peer effects.

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Michael Bloem, Weixiang Pan, Jonathan Smith.

Using administrative data from Georgia, we provide the first study of the full set of college entrance exam-taking strategies, including who takes the ACT and the SAT (or both), when they take the exams, and how many times they take each exam. We have several main findings. First, one-third of exam takers take both the ACT and SAT. Second, we see pronounced disparities in several measures of exam-taking strategy by free- and reduced-price lunch status, even after including a rich set of controls, but not by underrepresented minority status. Third, we find evidence that taking more total exams leads to higher admissions-relevant test scores and a higher likelihood of enrolling in colleges with relatively high graduation rates and earnings. However, these relationships with test scores and college enrollment are smaller for those who take both the ACT and SAT, as opposed to retaking the same exam multiple times.

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Peter Q. Blair, Papia Debroy, Justin Heck.

Over the past four decades, income inequality grew significantly between workers with bachelor’s degrees and those with high school diplomas (often called “unskilled”). Rather than being unskilled, we argue that these workers are STARs because they are skilled through alternative routes—namely their work experience. Using the skill requirements of a worker’s current job as a proxy of their actual skill, we find that though both groups of workers make transitions to occupations requiring similar skills to their previous occupations, workers with bachelor’s degrees have dramatically better access to higher wage occupations where the skill requirements exceed the workers’ observed skill. This measured opportunity gap offers a fresh explanation of income inequality by degree status and reestablishes the important role of on-the-job-training in human capital formation.

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Christian Fischer, Rachel Baker, Qiujie Li, Gabe Avakian Orona, Mark Warschauer.

Online courses provide flexible learning opportunities, but research suggests that students may learn less and persist at lower rates compared to face-to-face settings. However, few research studies have investigated more distal effects of online education. In this study we analyzed six years of institutional data for three cohorts of students in thirteen large majors (N=10,572) at a public research university to examine distal effects of students’ online course participation. Using online course offering as an instrumental variable for online course taking, we find that online course taking of major-required courses leads to higher likelihood of successful four-year graduation and slightly accelerated time-to-degree. These results suggest that offering online course-taking opportunities may help students to more efficiently graduate college.

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