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Post-secondary education

Oded Gurantz.

This paper uses Advanced Placement (AP) exams to examine how receiving college credit in high school alters students’ subsequent human capital investment. Using data from one large state, I link high school students to postsecondary transcripts from in-state, public institutions and estimate causal impacts using a regression discontinuity that compares students with essentially identical AP performance but who receive different offers of college credit. I find that female students who earn credit from STEM exams take higher-level STEM courses, significantly increasing their depth of study, with no observed impacts for males. As a result, the male-female gap in STEM courses taken shrinks by roughly one-third to two-thirds, depending on the outcome studied. Earning non-STEM AP credit increases overall coursework in non-STEM courses and increases the breadth of study across departments. Early credit policies help assist colleges to produce graduates whose skills aligns with commonly cited social or economic priorities, such as developing STEM graduates with stronger skills, particularly among traditionally underrepresented groups.

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Zachary Mabel, CJ Libassi, Michael Hurwitz.

Policymakers are increasingly including early-career earnings data in consumer-facing college search tools to help students and families make more informed post-secondary education decisions. We offer new evidence on the degree to which existing college-specific earnings data equips consumers with useful information by documenting the level of selection bias in the earnings metrics reported in the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Given growing interest in reporting earnings by college and major, we focus on the degree to which earnings differences across four-year colleges and universities can be explained by differences in major composition across institutions. We estimate that more than three-quarters of the variation in median earnings across institutions is explained by observable factors, and accounting for differences in major composition explains over 30 percent of the residual variation in earnings after controlling for institutional selectivity, student composition, and local cost of living differences. We also identify large variations in the distribution of earnings within colleges; as a result, comparisons of early-career earnings can be extremely sensitive to whether the median, 25th, or 75th percentiles are presented. Taken together, our findings indicate that consumers can easily draw misleading conclusions about institutional quality when using publicly available earnings data to compare institutions.

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Philip Oreopoulos, Uros Petronijevic.

We present results from a five-year effort to design promising online and text-message interventions to improve college achievement through several distinct channels.  From a sample of nearly 25,000 students across three different campuses, we find some improvement from coaching-based interventions on mental health and study time, but none of the interventions we evaluate significantly influences academic outcomes (even for those students more at risk of dropping out).  We interpret the results with our survey data and a model of student effort.  Students study about five to eight hours fewer each week than they plan to, though our interventions do not alter this tendency.  The coaching interventions make some students realize that more effort is needed to attain good grades but, rather than working harder, they settle by adjusting grade expectations downwards.  Our study time impacts are not large enough for translating into significant academic benefits.  More comprehensive but expensive programs appear more promising for helping college students outside the classroom. 

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Appendix A2.09 MB
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Appendix B254.91 KB

Aizat Nurshatayeva, Lindsay C. Page.

English-only college education in non-English speaking countries is a rapidly growing phenomenon that has been dubbed as the most important trend in higher education internationalization. Despite worldwide popularity, there is little empirical evidence about how the transition to English-only instruction affects students’ academic outcomes. Using a natural experiment at a selective university in Central Asia and a difference-in-differences strategy, we estimate the causal effect of switching to English-only instruction on students’ college outcomes. We find that the introduction of English-only instruction led to a decrease of GPAs and probability of graduation and an increase in the number of failed course credits. Although negative, the effects were short-lived. The difference-in-differences estimates and the examination of potential mechanisms suggest that at least in selective universities in non-English speaking countries, the switch to English-only instruction may affect college outcomes negatively at the time of transition but may not necessarily imply longer-run negative effects.

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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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Harry J. Holzer, Zeyu Xu.

In this paper we estimate the impacts of the “pathways” chosen by community college students—in terms of desired credentials and fields of study, as well as other choices and outcomes along the paths—on the attainment of credentials with labor market value. We focus on the extent to which there are recorded changes in students’ choices over time, whether students make choices informed by their chances of success and by labor market value of credentials, and the impacts of choices on outcomes. We find that several characteristics of chosen pathways, such as field of study and desired credential as well as early “momentum,” affect outcomes. Student choices of pathways are not always driven by information about later chances of success, in terms of probabilities of completing programs and attaining strong earnings. Students also change pathways quite frequently, making it harder to accumulate the credits needed in their fields. Attainment of credentials with greater market value could thus likely be improved by appropriate guidance and supports for students along the way, and perhaps by broader institutional changes as well.

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Jeffrey T. Denning, Todd R. Jones.

Despite large and growing student loan balances, there is relatively little evidence on the effects of access to student loans on borrowing and educational outcomes. We examine the effect of access to credit by using policy variation in the maximum federal student loan amounts available to U.S. college students. In particular, first-, second-, and third-year students have access to different amounts of federal student loans. Using a regression discontinuity and administrative data from a state higher education system, we find that access to higher loan limits increases borrowing for at least 26 percent of borrowers. Despite this increase in borrowing, we find no evidence that eligibility for additional loans affects student GPA, persistence, or graduation.

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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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Oded Gurantz, Jessica Howell, Mike Hurwitz, Cassandra Larson, Matea Pender, Brooke White.

The College Board sought to reduce barriers in the college application process by minimizing information aggregation costs, encouraging a broad application portfolio, and providing an impetus to start the search process. Some students were offered additional encouragements, such as text message reminders or college application fee waivers. In a randomized control trial with 785,000 low- and middle-income students in the top 50% of the PSAT and SAT distributions, we find no changes in college enrollment patterns, with the exception of a 0.02σ increase in college quality measures for African-American and Hispanic students.

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Christina Ciocca Eller.

The rise of accountability standards has pressed higher education organizations to oversee the production and publication of data on student outcomes more closely than in the past. However, the most common measure of student outcomes, average bachelor's degree completion rates, potentially provides little information about the direct impacts of colleges and universities on student success. Extending scholarship in the new institutionalist tradition, I hypothesize that higher education organizations today exist as, “superficially coupled systems,” where colleges closely oversee their technical outputs but where those technical outputs provide limited insight into the direct role of colleges and universities in producing them. I test this hypothesis using administrative data from the largest, public, urban university system in the United States together with fixed effects regression and entropy balancing techniques, allowing me to isolate organizational effects. My results provide evidence for superficial coupling, suggesting that inequality in college effectiveness exists both between colleges and within colleges, given students' racial background and family income. They also indicate that institutionalized norms surrounding accountability have backfired, enabling higher education organizations, and other bureaucratic organizations like them, to maintain legitimacy without identifying and addressing inequality.

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