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Access and admissions

Todd Pugatch, Paul Thompson.

Can public university honors programs deliver the benefits of selective undergraduate education within otherwise nonselective institutions? We evaluate the impact of admission to the Honors College at Oregon State University, a large nonselective public university. Admission to the Honors College depends heavily on a numerical application score. Nonlinearities in admissions probabilities as a function of this score allow us to compare applicants with similar scores, but different admissions outcomes, via a fuzzy regression kink design. The first stage is strong, with takeup of Honors College programming closely following nonlinearities in admissions probabilities. To estimate the causal effect of Honors College admission on human capital formation, we use these nonlinearities in the admissions function as instruments, combined with course-section fixed effects to account for strategic course selection. Honors College admission increases course grades by 0.10 grade points on the 0-4 scale, or 0.14 standard deviations. Effects are concentrated at the top of the course grade distribution. Previous exposure to Honors sections of courses in the same subject is a leading potential channel for increased grades. However, course grades of first-generation students decrease in response to Honors admission, driven by low performance in natural science courses. Results suggest that selective Honors programs can accelerate skill acquisition for high-achieving students at public universities, but not all students benefit from Honors admission.

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Oded Gurantz, Ann Obadan.

The absence of federal support leaves undocumented students reliant on state policies to financially support their postsecondary education. We descriptively examine the postsecondary trajectories of tens of thousands of undocumented students newly eligible for California’s state aid program, using detailed application data to compare them to similar peers. In this context, undocumented students who apply and are eligible for the program use grant aid to attend college at rates similar to their peers. Undocumented students remain more likely to enroll in a community college at the expense of attending a broad access four-year college and have higher exit rates from two-year colleges. Yet undocumented students are equally likely to attend the more selective University of California system, and across four-year public colleges have persistence rates similar to their peers, showing that those who do attend four-year colleges perform well.

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Taylor Odle.

Promoting equality in college enrollment and completion must start early in students’ college-going journeys, including with their expectations to first earn a college degree. With a nationally representative sample of high school students, I evaluate the ability of a recent collection of college access policies (place-based “promise” scholarships or “free” college programs) to increase students’ college expectations and test the heterogeneity of these impacts across students’ race and family income. Evidence from a difference-in-differences design and lagged-dependent-variable regressions suggest the introduction of promise programs increased the likelihood a student expected to attain an associate degree or higher by 8.5 to 15.0 percentage points by the end of high school, with larger effects for low-income and racially minoritized students. This study is the first to test the power of “free” college in shaping pre-college students’ educational plans, and, in doing so, not only addresses an existing gap in the literature but also identifies a key mechanism through which many of the positive college-going impacts observed across promise programs in the current literature may in fact originate. Given the rapid proliferation of promise programs across the nation, this study provides policymakers with a fuller view of the potential impacts of these programs, particularly concerning how they influence students’ outcomes along dimensions of race and income.

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Michael F. Lovenheim, Jonathan Smith.

Early research on the returns to higher education treated the postsecondary system as a monolith.  In reality, postsecondary education in the United States and around the world is highly differentiated, with a variety of options that differ by credential (associates degree, bachelor’s degree, diploma, certificate, graduate degree), the control of the institution (public, private not-for-profit, private for-profit), the quality/resources of the institution, field of study, and exposure to remedial education. In this Chapter, we review the literature on the returns to these different types of higher education investments, which has received increasing attention in recent decades. We first provide an overview of the structure of higher education in the U.S. and around the world, followed by a model that helps clarify and articulate the assumptions employed by different estimators used in the literature. We then discuss the research on the return to institution type, focusing on the return to two-year, four-year, and for-profit institutions as well as the return to college quality within and across these institution types. We also present the research on the return to different educational programs, including vocational credentials, remedial education, field of study, and graduate school. The wide variation in the returns to different postsecondary investments that we document leads to the question of how students from different backgrounds sort into these different institutions and programs. We discuss the emerging research showing that lower-SES students, especially in the U.S., are more likely to sort into colleges and programs with lower returns as well as results from recent U.S.-based interventions and policies designed to support success among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Chapter concludes with some broad directions for future research.

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Sarah A. Cordes, Agustina Laurito.

In this paper we estimate the effect of charter schools on the diversity of nearby traditional public schools (TPSs) and neighborhoods in New York City. We employ a difference-in-differences approach that exploits the differences in the expansion of the charter sector between grades in the same school. This approach allows us to isolate the effect of charter schools from other neighborhood demographic changes. Our results show small positive effects of charter school expansion on TPS diversity as measured by the entropy score. This change is explained by small increases in the number of White students attending nearby TPSs and larger reductions in the number of Black and Hispanic students in these schools. We also find descriptive evidence that while both neighborhoods and TPSs are slightly more diverse following charter school expansion, schools are changing faster than their surrounding neighborhoods.

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Kaitlin P. Anderson.

Black and Latinx students are under-represented in Advanced Placement (AP) and Dual Enrollment (DE), and implicit bias of educators has been discussed as one potential contributing factor. In this study, I test whether implicit and explicit racial bias are related to AP and DE participation and racial/ethnic gaps in participation, controlling for various observable contextual factors. I find a small relationship between implicit racial bias and disparate AP participation for Black students relative to White students, and suggestive evidence of a relationship between explicit racial bias and disparate DE participation for Black students relative to White students. Further, more explicitly-biased communities tend to have lower AP participation rates overall. Implications for school leaders regarding implicit bias training and other ways to address systemic inequities in access are discussed.

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Alex Eble, Feng Hu.

Colleges can send signals about their quality by adopting new, more alluring names. We study how this affects college choice and labor market performance of college graduates. Administrative data show name-changing colleges enroll higher-aptitude students, with larger effects for alluring-but-misleading name changes and among students with less information. A large resume audit study suggests a small premium for new college names in most jobs, and a significant penalty in lower-status jobs. We characterize student and employer beliefs using web-scraped text, surveys, and other data. Our study shows signals designed to change beliefs can have real, lasting impacts on market outcomes.

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Alex Eble, Maya Escueta.

In very low-income settings, how much does family demand matter for child learning? In rural Gambia, caregivers with high aspirations for their children’s future education and career, measured before children start school, invest substantially more than other families in their children’s education. Despite this, essentially no children are literate or numerate three years later. In contrast, in villages receiving a highly impactful, teacher-focused supply-side intervention, children of high-aspirations caregivers are 25 percent more likely to achieve literacy and numeracy than other children. In such settings, greater demand can map onto developmentally meaningful learning differences, but only with adequate complementary inputs.

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Andrew C. Barr, Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, William L. Skimmyhorn.

Non-traditional students disproportionately enroll in institutions with weaker graduation and earnings outcomes. One hypothesis is that these students would have made different choices had they been provided with better information or supports during the decision-making process. We conducted a large-scale, multi-arm field experiment with the U.S. Army to investigate whether personalized information and the offer of advising assistance affect postsecondary choices and attainment among non-traditional adult populations. We provided U.S. Army service members transitioning out of the military with a package of research-based information and prompts, including quality and cost information on a personalized set of matched colleges, messages targeted at addressing veteran-specific concerns or needs, and reminders about key stages in the college and financial aid application process. For a randomly selected subset of the experimental sample, we also provided service members with opportunities to connect with a college advisor. We find no overall impact of the intervention on whether service members enroll in college, on the quality of their college enrollment, or on their persistence in college. We find suggestive evidence of a modest increase in degree completion within the period of observation, with these impacts mainly driven by increased attainment at for-profit institutions. Our results suggest that influencing non-traditional populations’ educational decisions and outcomes will require substantially more intensive programs and significant resources.

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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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