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Access and admissions
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.
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 document that standards for degree receipt may explain some of the change in graduation rates.
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.
I conduct a statewide experiment in Michigan with nearly 50,000 high-achieving high school seniors. Treated students are mailed a letter encouraging them to consider college and providing them with the web address of a college information website. I find that very high-achieving, low-income students, and very high-achieving, minority students are the most likely to navigate to the website. Small changes to letter content affect take-up. For example, highlighting college affordability induces 18 percent more students to the website than highlighting college choice, and 37 percent more than highlighting how to apply to college. I find a statistically precise zero impact on college enrollment among all students mailed the letter. However, low-income students experience a small increase in the probability that they enroll in college, driven by increases at four-year institutions. An examination of persistence through college, while imprecise, suggests that the students induced into college by the intervention persist at a lower rate than the inframarginal student.
Only half of SAT-takers retake the exam, with even lower retake rates among low income and underrepresented minority (URM) students. We exploit discontinuous jumps in retake probabilities at multiples of 100, driven by left-digit bias, to estimate retaking’s causal effects. Retaking substantially improves SAT scores and increases four-year college enrollment rates, particularly for low income and URM students. Eliminating disparities in retake rates could close up to 10 percent of the income-based gap and up to seven percent of the race-based gap in four-year college enrollment rates of high school graduates.