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Douglas N. Harris

Douglas N. Harris, Jonathan Mills.

We provide theory and evidence about how the design of college financial aid programs affects a variety of high school, college, and life outcomes. The evidence comes from an eight-year randomized trial where 2,587 high school ninth graders received a $12,000 merit-based grant offer. During high school, the program increased their college expectations and non-merit effort but had no effect on merit-related effort (e.g., GPA). After high school, the program increased graduation from two-year colleges only, apparently because of the free college design/framing in only that sector. But we see no effects on incarceration or teen pregnancy. Overall, the results suggest that free college affects student outcomes in ways similar to what advocates of free college suggest and making aid commitments early, well before college starts, increases some forms of high school effort. But we see no evidence that merit requirements are effective. Both the standard human capital model and behavioral economics are required to explain these results.

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Beth Glenn, Douglas N. Harris.

Multiple studies have documented the positive effect of school choice on college attendance. We focus instead on the quality of colleges, which is linked to higher graduation rates and later-in-life wages, especially for Black and Hispanic students. We examine the effect of the New Orleans school reforms, a district-wide reform creating an almost all-charter school district, on the quality of colleges that students attended. Using difference-in-differences analysis of statewide microdata, we find that the reforms led students to attend four-year colleges, and higher-quality ones, at higher rates. The reforms also increased the share of college-goers who were well matched to their colleges and this had little effect on transfer or persistence rates. Overall, these results reinforce that the reforms led students to attend higher-quality colleges that will improve long-term life outcomes.

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Douglas N. Harris, Lihan Liu, Daniel Oliver, Cathy Balfe, Sara Slaughter, Nicholas Mattei.

COVID-19 has forced essentially all schools in the country to close their doors to inperson activities. In this study, we provide new evidence about variation in school responses across school types. We focus on five main constructs of school activity during COVID-19: personalization and engagement in instruction, personalization and engagement in other school communication with students, progress monitoring (especially assignment grading), breadth of services (e.g., counseling and meals), and equitable access (to technology and services for students with special needs). We find that the strongest predictor of the extent of school activities was the education level of parents and other adults in schools’ neighborhoods. Internet access also predicts school responses. Race, parent/adult income, and school spending do not predict school responses. Private schools shifted to remote learning several days faster than traditional public schools, though others eventually caught up. On some measures, charter schools exceeded the responses of other schools; in other cases, traditional public schools had the highest overall measures. States in the Midwest responded more aggressively than those in other regions, especially the South, even after controlling for the full set of additional covariates. Learning management systems were reported by a large majority of schools, followed by video communication tools and tutorial/assessment programs. Several methods are proposed and implemented to address differential website use. We discuss potential implications of these findings for policy and effects on student outcomes.

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Douglas N. Harris, Lihan Liu, Nathan Barrett, Ruoxi Li.

High school graduation rates have increased dramatically in the past two decades. Some skepticism has arisen, however, because of the confluence of the graduation rise and the starts of high-stakes accountability for graduation rates with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In this study we provide some of the first evidence about the role of accountability versus strategic behavior, especially the degree to which the recent graduation rate rise represents increased human capital. First, using national DD analysis of within-state, cross-district variation in proximity to state graduation rate thresholds, we confirm that NCLB accountability increased graduation rates. However, we find limited evidence that this is due to strategic behavior. To test for lowering of graduation standards, we examined graduation rates in states with and without graduation exams and trends in GEDs; neither analysis suggests that the graduation rate rise is due to strategic behavior. We also examined the effects of “credit recovery” courses using Louisiana micro data; while our results suggest an increase in credit recovery, consistent with some lowering of standards, the size of the effect is not nearly enough to explain the rise in graduation rates. Finally, we examine other forms of strategic behavior by schools, though these can only explain inflation of school/district-level graduation rates, not rational rates. Overall, the evidence suggests that the rise in the national graduation rates reflects some strategic behavior, but also a substantial increase in the nation’s stock of human capital. Graduation accountability was a key contributor.

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