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Access and admissions

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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Sarah R. Cohodes, Sean P. Corcoran, Jennifer L. Jennings, Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj.

This paper reports the results of a large, school-level randomized controlled trial evaluating a set of three informational interventions for young people choosing high schools in 473 middle schools, serving over 115,000 8th graders. The interventions differed in their level of customization to the student and their mode of delivery (paper or online); all treated schools received identical materials to scaffold the decision-making process. Every intervention reduced likelihood of application to and enrollment in schools with graduation rates below the city median (75 percent). An important channel is their effect on reducing nonoptimal first choice application strategies. Providing a simplified, middle-school specific list of relatively high graduation rate schools had the largest impacts, causing students to enroll in high schools with 1.5-percentage point higher graduation rates. Providing the same information online, however, did not alter students’ choices or enrollment. This appears to be due to low utilization. Online interventions with individual customization, including a recommendation tool and search engine, induced students to enroll in high schools with 1-percentage point higher graduation rates, but with more variance in impact. Together, these results show that successful informational interventions must generate engagement with the material, and this is possible through multiple channels.

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Matt S. Giani, Colton E. Krawietz, Tiffany A. Whittaker.

Dual-enrollment courses are theorized to promote students' preparedness for college in part by bolstering their beneficial beliefs, such as academic self-efficacy, educational expectations, and sense of college belonging. These beliefs may also shape students' experiences and outcomes in dual-enrollment courses, yet few if any studies have examined this possibility. We study a large dual-enrollment program created by a university in the Southwest to examine these patterns. We find that mathematics self-efficacy and educational expectations predict performance in dual-enrollment courses, even when controlling for students' academic preparedness, while factors such as high school belonging, college belonging, and self-efficacy in other academic domains are unrelated to academic performance. However, we also find that students of color and first-generation students tend to have lower self-efficacy and educational expectations before enrolling in dual-enrollment courses, in addition to having lower levels of academic preparation. These findings suggest that students from historically marginalized populations may benefit from social-psychological as well as academic supports in order to receive maximum benefits from early postsecondary opportunities such as dual-enrollment. Our findings have implications for how states and dual-enrollment programs determine eligibility for dual-enrollment as well as how dual-enrollment programs should be designed and delivered in order to promote equity in college preparedness.

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Serena Canaan, Pierre Mouganie, Peng Zhang.

Despite the prevalence of school tracking, evidence on whether it improves student success is mixed. This paper studies how tracking within high school impacts high-achieving students’ short- and longer-term academic outcomes. Our setting is a large and selective Chinese high school, where first-year students are separated into high-achieving and regular classrooms based on their performance on a standardized exam. Classrooms differ in terms of peer ability, teacher quality, class size, as well as level and pace of instruction. Using newly collected administrative data and a regression discontinuity design, we show that high-achieving classrooms improve math test scores by 23 percent of a standard deviation, with effects persisting throughout the three years of high school. Effects on performance in Chinese and English language subjects are more muted. Importantly, we find that high-achieving classrooms substantially raise enrollment in elite universities, as they increase scores on the national college entrance exam—the sole determinant of university admission in China.

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Riley Acton.

In the competitive U.S. higher education market, institutions differentiate themselves to attract both students and tuition dollars. One understudied example of this differentiation is the increasing trend of "colleges" becoming "universities" by changing their names. Leveraging variation in the timing of such conversions in an event study framework, I show that becoming a university increases enrollments at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, which leads to an increase in degree production and total revenues. I further find that these effects are largest when institutions are the first in their market to convert to a university and can lead to negative spillover effects on non-converting colleges.

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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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Zachary Bleemer, Aashish Mehta.

Underrepresented minority (URM) college students have been steadily earning degrees in relatively less-lucrative fields of study since the mid-1990s. A decomposition reveals that this widening gap is principally explained by rising stratification at public research universities, many of which increasingly enforce GPA restriction policies that prohibit students with poor introductory grades from declaring popular majors. We investigate these GPA restrictions by constructing a novel 50-year dataset covering four public research universities' student transcripts and employing a staggered difference-in-difference design around the implementation of 29 restrictions. Restricted majors’ average URM enrollment share falls by 20 percent, which matches observational patterns and can be explained by URM students’ poorer average pre-college academic preparation. Using first-term course enrollments to identify students who intend to earn restricted majors, we find that major restrictions disproportionately lead URM students from their intended major toward less-lucrative fields, driving within-institution ethnic stratification and likely exacerbating labor market disparities.

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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 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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Eric Bettinger, Benjamin L. Castleman, Alice Choe, Zachary Mabel.

Nearly half of students who enter college do not graduate. The majority of efforts to increase college completion have focused on supporting students before or soon after they enter college, yet many students drop out after making significant progress towards their degree. In this paper, we report results from a multi-year, large-scale experimental intervention conducted across five states and 20 broad-access, public colleges and universities to support students who are late in their college career but still at risk of not graduating. The intervention provided these “near-completer” students with personalized text messages that encouraged them to connect with campus-based academic and financial resources, reminded them of upcoming and important deadlines, and invited them to engage (via text) with campus-based advisors. We find little evidence that the message campaign affected academic performance or attainment in either the full sample or within individual higher education systems or student subgroups. The findings suggest low-cost nudge interventions may be insufficient for addressing barriers to completion among students who have made considerable academic progress.

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Alex Eble, Feng Hu.

Hundreds of colleges have changed their names to signal higher quality. We estimate how this affects college choice and the labor market performance of college graduates. Administrative data show that name-changing colleges enroll higher-aptitude students, with larger effects for attractive-but-misleading name changes and among students with less information. A resume audit study shows that employer callbacks respond to the increased aptitude of recruited students at these colleges. We broaden these results using scraped online text data, survey data, and other administrative data. Our study demonstrates that signals designed to change beliefs can have real, lasting impacts on market outcomes.

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