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Access and admissions

Blake Heller.

In 2016, the GED® introduced college readiness benchmarks designed to identify testers who are academically prepared for credit-bearing college coursework. The benchmarks are promoted as awarding college credits or exempting “college-ready” GED® graduates from remedial coursework. I show descriptive evidence that those identified as college-ready by these benchmarks enroll and persist in college at significantly higher rates than others who pass the GED® exam, but at lower rates than recent graduates with traditional high school diplomas. Regression discontinuity estimates show that crossing a college readiness threshold does not substantially influence testers' college enrollment or persistence during the two years following their first test attempt. Relatedly, I observe little exam retaking by those who fall narrowly short of the minimum college readiness score thresholds. This contrasts strongly with retaking behavior near the lower GED® passing threshold that determines eligibility for a high school equivalency credential. Those who narrowly fail a GED® subject test are over 100 times more likely to retest than those who fall just short of a college readiness benchmark in the same subject. GED® college readiness benchmarks do not currently appear to promote better college outcomes, but in the absence of more detailed test score information they offer a simple heuristic to predict short-run college enrollment and persistence among GED® graduates, particularly for those who identify educational gain as a primary reason for testing. The results highlight the promise and challenges associated with building pathways for non-traditional students to earn credit for prior learning.

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S. Michael Gaddis, Charles Crabtree, John B. Holbein, Steven Pfaff.

Although numerous studies document different forms of discrimination in the U.S. public education system, very few provide plausibly causal estimates. Thus, it is unclear to what extent public school principals discriminate against racial and ethnic minorities. Moreover, no studies test for heterogeneity in racial/ethnic discrimination by individual-level resource needs and school-level resource strain – potentially important moderators in the education context. Using a correspondence audit, we examine bias against Black, Hispanic, and Chinese American families in interactions with 52,792 public K-12 principals in 33 states. Our research provides causal evidence that Hispanic and Chinese American families face significant discrimination in initial interactions with principals, regardless of individual-level resource needs. Black families, however, only face discrimination when they have high resource needs. Additionally, principals in schools with greater resource strain discriminate more against Chinese American families. This research uncovers complexities of racial/ethnic discrimination in the K-12 context because we examine multiple racial/ethnic groups and test for heterogeneity across individual- and school-level variables. These findings highlight the need for researchers conducting future correspondence audits to expand the scope of their research to provide a more comprehensive analysis of racial/ethnic discrimination in the U.S.

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Ashley Edwards, Justin C. Ortagus, Jonathan Smith, Andria Smythe.

Using data from nearly 1.2 million Black SAT takers, we estimate the impacts of initially enrolling in an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) on educational, economic, and financial outcomes. We control for the college application portfolio and compare students with similar portfolios and levels of interest in HBCUs and non-HBCUs who ultimately make divergent enrollment decisions - often enrolling in a four-year HBCU in lieu of a two-year college or no college. We find that students initially enrolling in HBCUs are 14.6 percentage points more likely to earn a BA degree and have 5 percent higher household income around age 30 than those who do not enroll in an HBCU. Initially enrolling in an HBCU also leads to $12,000 more in outstanding student loans around age 30. We find that some of these results are driven by an increased likelihood of completing a degree from relatively broad-access HBCUs and also relatively high-earning majors (e.g., STEM). We also explore new outcomes, such as credit scores, mortgages, bankruptcy, and neighborhood characteristics around age 30.

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Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman.
Recent work highlights the challenge of scaling evidence-based strategies to achieve social policy objectives. We evaluate, through a randomized control trial, a national financial incentive program designed to increase student engagement with college advising and completion of college and financial aid milestones that prior experimental studies demonstrate contribute to increased college enrollment and success. We find substantial positive effects of the incentive program on each of the incented behaviors: Treated students were more likely to engage regularly with a college advisor; apply to well-matched colleges and universities; and meet with an advisor to review their financial aid awards and discuss college costs. Yet students randomly offered the incentives were no more likely to enroll at higher-quality colleges and universities, despite being high in the distribution of college entrance exam scores and from a socioeconomic background that many institutions indicate is central to their diversity goals. Student responses to a survey administered the summer and fall after high school suggest that lack of admission to the most selective institutions, lack of affordability at selective institutions to which students were admitted, and student preferences to attend institutions closer to home explain the lack of enrollment effects.

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Walter G. Ecton.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) has long played a substantial, though controversial, role within America’s public schools. While supporters argue that CTE may increase student engagement and prepare students for success in the workforce, detractors caution that CTE may inhibit students’ access to the rigorous academic coursework needed for college and high-status careers. As students’ time in high school is a relatively fixed resource, this paper seeks to better understand the extent to which CTE is associated with trade-offs within students’ high school curricula. Using a robust statewide longitudinal data system, this study explores the extent to which CTE may limit course taking in a wide range of subjects (including core academic subjects, electives, and Advanced Placement courses). Special attention is paid to how curricular trade-offs may occur differently among different student populations, keeping in mind the legacy of tracking as a long-employed mechanism for reducing opportunity. On average, results indicate that CTE courses do crowd out students’ enrollment in non-CTE elective areas, but that CTE does not lead to large declines in college preparatory coursetaking, though there are nuances for certain student populations. Overall, these findings counter longstanding narratives that CTE participation limits student access to college preparatory coursework.

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Dominique J. Baker, Jaime Ramirez-Mendoza, Lauren Mena Shook, Christopher T. Bennett.

News media plays a crucial role in the student loan policy ecosystem by influencing how policymakers and the public understand the “problem” of student loans. Prior research emphasizes the causal impact of the media on the social construction of policy issues and the lack of knowledge about the authors of news articles. Theory also suggests that it is more difficult for new information to reach people in the core of a social network given their insular relationships. Therefore, we used social network analysis to investigate the college backgrounds for authors of student loan articles published in eight prominent newspapers between 2006 and 2021. We found evidence of a stark status hierarchy among the colleges attended (e.g., over half of the authors attended an Ivy Plus or Public Flagship institution). Our findings also identified a negative relationship between that hierarchy and an innovative practice, the use of racialized language in student loan news articles. We discuss how this status hierarchy might explain current patterns of racialized language in student loan policy and the implications of this relationship for the intersection of status and novel practices.

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Monnica Chan, Blake Heller.

Generally, need-based financial aid improves students’ academic outcomes. However, the largest source of need-based grant aid in the United States, the Federal Pell Grant Program (Pell), has a mixed evaluation record. We assess the minimum Pell Grant in a regression discontinuity framework, using Kentucky administrative data. We focus on whether and how year-to-year changes in aid eligibility and interactions with other sources of aid attenuate Pell’s estimated effects on post-secondary outcomes. This evaluation complements past work by assessing explanations for the null or muted impacts found in our analysis and other Pell evaluations. We also discuss the limitations of using regression discontinuity methods to evaluate Pell—or other interventions with dynamic eligibility criteria—with respect to generalizability and construct validity.

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Lena Shi.

Students’ college choices can affect their chances of earning a degree, but many lack the support to navigate the opaque college application and admissions process. This paper evaluates whether guaranteeing four-year college admissions based on transparent academic standards affected community college students’ enrollment choices and graduation rates. Guaranteed admissions increased high-GPA graduates’ transfer rates to highly-selective colleges by 30 percent. Increased transfers to highly-selective colleges also accompanied higher graduation rates and lower student debt. Gains were largest for students with historically lower transfer rates. Transparent admissions standards can increase access to selective colleges at low to no cost.

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Francisco Gallego, Philip Oreopoulos, Noah Spencer.

This paper discusses the importance of incorporating personal assistance into interventions aimed at improving long-term education and labor market success. While existing research demonstrates the cost-effectiveness of low-touch behavioral nudges, this paper argues that the dynamic nature of human capital accumulation requires sustained habits over time. To foster better habits, social connections are critical for encouraging enduring effort and intrinsic motivation. The paper showcases examples from various stages of human capital accumulation, including early childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, in which interventions that incorporate personal assistance substantially out-perform less intensive nudges. We underscore the importance of interactive support, guidance, and motivation in facilitating significant progress and explore the challenges associated with implementing cost-effective policies to provide such assistance.

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Brian McManus, Jessica Howell, Michael Hurwitz.

The impact of test-optional college admissions policies depends on whether applicants act strategically in disclosing test scores. We analyze individual applicants’ standardized test scores and disclosure behavior to 50 major US colleges for entry in fall 2021, when Covid-19 prompted widespread adoption of test-optional policies. Applicants withheld low scores and disclosed high scores, including seeking admissions advantages by conditioning their disclosure choices on their other academic characteristics, colleges’ selectivity and testing policy statements, and the Covid-related test access challenges of the applicants’ local peers. We find only modest differences in test disclosure strategies by applicants’ race and socioeconomic characteristics.

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