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Post-secondary education

Elise Swanson, Tatiana Melguizo, Francisco Martorell.

This paper estimates the relationship between students’ psychosocial and academic outcomes during their first three years enrolled at public, four-year institutions. Our sample is comprised of students from low-income backgrounds who applied for a competitive scholarship and enrolled at a four-year public institution. We follow two cohorts of entering students throughout their first three years on campus. We observe their cumulative GPA and persistence decisions each semester, and have annual measures of four psychosocial outcomes: mattering to campus, sense of belonging to campus, academic self-efficacy, and social self-efficacy. We find that psychosocial outcomes are moderately predictive of academic outcomes, with sense of belonging and academic self-efficacy emerging as most predictive of both cumulative GPA and persistence.

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Alberto Guzman-Alvarez, Lindsay C. Page.

Verification is a federally mandated process that requires selected students to further attest that the information reported on their FAFSA is accurate and complete. In this brief, we estimate institutional costs of administrating the FAFSA verification mandate and consider variation in costs by institution type and sector. Using data from 2014, we estimate that compliance costs to institutions in that year totaled nearly $500 million with the burden falling disproportionately on public institutions and community colleges, in particular. Specifically, we estimate that 22% of an average community college’s financial aid office operating budget is devoted to verification procedures, compared to 15% at public four-year institutions. Our analysis is timely, given that rates of FAFSA verification have increased in recent years.

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Sandra E. Black, Jeffrey T. Denning, Lisa J. Dettling, Sarena Goodman, Lesley J. Turner.

Growing reliance on student loans and repayment difficulties have raised concerns of a student debt crisis in the United States. However, little is known about the effects of student borrowing on human capital and long-run financial well-being. We use variation induced by recent expansions in federal loan limits, together with administrative schooling, earnings, and credit records, to identify the effects of increased student borrowing on credit-constrained students’ educational attainment, earnings, debt, and loan repayment. Increased student loan availability raises student debt and improves degree completion, later-life earnings, and student loan repayment while having no effect on homeownership or other types of debt.

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Monnica Chan, Zachary Mabel, Preeya Pandya Mbekeani.

Performance-based funding models for higher education, which tie state support for institutions to performance on student outcomes, have proliferated in recent decades. Some states have designed these policies to also address educational attainment gaps by including bonus payments for traditionally low-performing groups. Using a Synthetic Control Method research design, we examine the impact of these funding regimes on race-based completion gaps in Tennessee and Ohio. We find no evidence that performance-based funding narrowed race-based completion gaps. In fact, contrary to their intended purpose, we find that performance-based funding widened existing gaps in certificate completion in Tennessee. Across both states, the estimated impacts on associate degree outcomes are also directionally consistent with performance-based funding exacerbating racial inequities in associate degree attainment.

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Thomas S. Dee, Graciela Perez-Nunez.

A growing body of evidence suggests that vocationally focused programs of study substantially improve high-school completion and longer-run economic success. However, the corresponding recommendations to expand vocational programs may have unintended, negative consequences for low-income, academically successful students (i.e., the “missing one offs”) who have the capacity and motivation to attend highly selective universities. This study contributes to our understanding of these issues by examining an innovative, college-preparatory program targeted to academically successful Chilean students attending vocational high schools serving lower-income communities. This program (Escuela Desarrollo de Talentos or EDT) provides academic and social-emotional supports aligned with admission to selective universities. We examine the educational effects of EDT participation using a fuzzy regression-discontinuity design based on its eligibility rules. We find that the EDT program did not increase the probability of graduating from high school but did increase performance in math courses. We also find corresponding evidence suggesting that EDT participation increased math performance on college entrance exams and shifted students away from further postsecondary vocational training and towards matriculation at elite universities.

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Oded Gurantz, Christopher Wielga.

COVID has led colleges to brace for potential enrollment declines in the Fall, which would devastate budgets and potentially decrease the likelihood a student ever earns a degree. We take an early look at California’s FAFSA applications up through mid-June, to anticipate how students may be responding to this crisis. We find that COVID did not affect most of California’s “traditional” high school graduates due to an early deadline for financial aid, which exists in a number of states. From early March to mid-June, FAFSA applications among freshmen declined 18%, relative to prior years. Although there were initial declines in applications among more experienced students, these quickly rebounded and are now 9% higher relative to prior years. The largest FAFSA increases occurred in counties that saw the most dramatic increases in Unemployment Insurance claims.

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Jeffrey T. Denning, Eric R. Eide, Kevin J. Mumford, Richard W. Patterson, Merrill Warnick.

College completion rates declined from the 1970s to the 1990s. We document that this trend has reversed--since the 1990s, college completion rates have increased. We investigate the reasons for the increase in college graduation rates. Collectively, student characteristics, institutional resources, and institution attended do not explain much of the change. However, we show that grade inflation can explain much of the change in graduation rates. We show that GPA is a strong predictor of graduation rates and that GPAs have been rising since the 1990s. We also find that increases in college GPAs cannot be explained by student demographics, ability, and school factors. Further, we find that at a public liberal arts college, grades have increased over time conditional on final exam performance.

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Paul T. von Hippel, Alvaro Hofflinger.

Enrollment in higher education has risen dramatically in Latin America, especially in Chile. Yet graduation and persistence rates remain low. One way to improve graduation and persistence is to use data and analytics to identify students at risk of dropout, target interventions, and evaluate interventions’ effectiveness at improving student success. We illustrate the potential of this approach using data from eight Chilean universities. Results show that data available at matriculation are only weakly predictive of persistence, while prediction improves dramatically once data on university grades become available. Some predictors of persistence are under policy control. Financial aid predicts higher persistence, and being denied a first-choice major predicts lower persistence. Student success programs are ineffective at some universities; they are more effective at others, but when effective they often fail to target the highest risk students. Universities should use data regularly and systematically to identify high-risk students, target them with interventions, and evaluate those interventions’ effectiveness.

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Shi Pu, Yu Yan, Liang Zhang.

This study used college dormitory room and social group assignment data to investigate the peer effect on the probability of college students switching their major fields of study. The results revealed strong evidence of peer effects on students’ decisions to switch majors. In particular, the number of a student’s peers who have the same major significantly reduces the student’s likelihood of switching majors; however, when a same-major peer switches majors, it significantly increases a student’s probability of switching majors. This study also found that peers’ majors affected students’ choice of destination majors. Students in the same peer group are more likely to choose the same destination majors, compared to non-peers. Finally, we found that in general peer effects at the dormitory room level, both in choice and persistence of major, were stronger than were peer effects at the social group level.

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Lindsay C. Page, Jeonghyun Lee, Hunter Gehlbach.

Success in postsecondary education requires students to engage with their institution both academically and administratively. As with the transition to college, administrative requirements students face once enrolled can be substantial. Missteps with required processes can threaten students’ ability to persist. During the 2018-19 academic year, Georgia State University implemented an artificially intelligent text-based chatbot to provide proactive outreach and support to help undergraduates navigate administrative processes and take advantage of campus resources. A team of centralized university administrators orchestrated outreach “campaigns” to support students across three broad domains: (1) academic supports; (2) social and career supports; and (3) administrative processes. We investigate GSU’s implementation of this persistence-focused chatbot through an experimental study. Of the three message domains, outreach was most effective when focused on administrative processes, many of which were time-sensitive and for which outreach could be targeted specifically to students for whom it was relevant based on administrative data. In contrast, outreach to encourage take up of other supports had little effect on student behavior. By the end of the academic year, rates of FAFSA filing and registration for the subsequent fall semester were approximately three percentage points higher, suggesting positive effects on year-to-year college persistence. The positive effects on fall enrollment persisted into summer 2019, at which time the GSU administration judged that the study results were compelling enough to conclude the experiment and roll the chatbot system out to all students. We situate our findings in the literature on nudge-type efforts to support college access and success to draw lessons regarding their effective use.

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