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Post-secondary education

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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Elizabeth S. Park, Peter McPartlan, Sabrina Solanki, Di Xu.

Existing research indicates that racially minoritized students with similar academic preparation are less likely than their represented peers to persist in STEM, raising the question of factors that may contribute to racial disparities in STEM participation beyond academic preparation. We extend the current literature by first examining race-based differences in what students expect to receive and their actual grades in introductory STEM college courses, a phenomenon termed as overestimation. Then, we assess whether overestimation differentially influences STEM interest and persistence in college. Findings indicate that first-year STEM students tend to overestimate their performance in general, and the extent of overestimation is more pronounced among racially minoritized students. Subsequent analyses indicate that students who overestimate are more likely to switch out of STEM, net academic preparation. Results from regression models suggest that race-based differences in overestimation can be explained by pre-college academic and contextual factors, most notably the high school a student attended.

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Elizabeth S. Park, Di Xu.

Growing literature documents the promise of active learning instruction in engaging students in college classrooms. Accordingly, faculty professional development (PD) programs on active learning have become increasingly popular in postsecondary institutions; yet, quantitative evidence on the effectiveness of these programs is limited. Using administrative data and an individual fixed effects approach, we estimate the effect of an active learning PD program on student performance and persistence at a large public institution. Findings indicate that the training improved subsequent persistence in the same field. Using a subset of instructors whose instruction was observed by independent observers, we identify a positive association between training and implementation of active learning teaching practices. These findings provide suggestive evidence that active learning PD has the potential to improve student outcomes. 

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Heather McCambly, Quinn Mulroy.

Public discussions of racial inclusion and equal opportunity initiatives in the U.S. are often met with claims that expanding access to an institution, space, or public good is likely to diminish its quality. Examples of this pattern include: anticipated (and real) property value declines when predominantly white neighborhoods become more racially diverse; fears that the excellence of white schools will decline when the population of Black and brown students grows; apprehensions that equitable hiring practices necessarily entail lower standards for job candidates. In this paper, we examine how a federal agency, the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), charged with addressing the aftermath of the ‘access wave’ of new college students promulgated by the Higher Education Act of 1965, came to reconcile its commitments to educational equity and quality. Through a novel examination of the historical development of what we term (e)quality politics in the administration of civil rights policy in higher education, we trace how two concepts - equity and quality – became discursively linked and contested in American politics. (E)quality politics refers to the introduction of a policy paradigm that reframes equity discussions and goals around the professed need to preserve and advance institutional “quality” using measures and standards that are, importantly, defined and instantiated under the era of segregation that precedes equal access policies. In particular, we uncover the discursive patterns by which the perceived threats to “quality” posed by racial diversity can prompt administrators to compensate, protect, and maintain the prerogatives of high-status institutions or groups that benefited under previous eras of exclusion. Understood as part of a backlash to egalitarian reforms, we argue, these quality measures undermine equity goals.

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Taylor Odle, Lauren Russell.

Reverse transfer associate degrees are credentials retroactively awarded to current bachelor’s degree seekers that combine current four-year credits with credits previously earned at a community college. Providing students with an associate degree may not only increase motivation and persistence en route to completing a bachelor’s but may also provide important labor market benefits by way of increased marketability and earnings potential. Despite the proliferation of reverse transfer policies across at least 15 states to date, there is no causal evidence documenting their effect on students’ outcomes. Leveraging administrative data from Tennessee matched with records on its statewide reverse transfer program and a difference-in-differences design, we find reverse transfer degrees generally have little impact on students’ short- and intermediate-term academic and labor market outcomes. Our results point to suggestive yet small positive gains in GPA and short-term employment for recipients, but these estimates accompany no impacts on bachelor’s degree attainment and estimates that confidently reject any meaningful impacts on recipients’ earnings. Our findings contrast those of existing descriptive works on reverse transfer that reported large benefits for students, due in part to our methodological improvements and more robust data. These findings should guide policymakers considering the adoption, design, and ongoing operation of reverse transfer programs.

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Brian Heseung Kim, Katharine Meyer, Alice Choe.

Interactive, text message-based advising programs have become an increasingly common strategy to support college access and success for underrepresented student populations. Despite the proliferation of these programs, we know relatively little about how students engage in these text-based advising opportunities and whether that relates to stronger student outcomes – factors that could help explain why we’ve seen relatively mixed evidence about their efficacy to date. In this paper, we use data from a large-scale, two-way text advising experiment focused on improving college completion to explore variation in student engagement using nuanced interaction metrics and automated text analysis techniques (i.e., natural language processing). We then explore whether student engagement patterns are associated with key outcomes including persistence, GPA, credit accumulation, and degree completion. Our results reveal substantial variation in engagement measures across students, indicating the importance of analyzing engagement as a multi-dimensional construct. We moreover find that many of these nuanced engagement measures have strong correlations with student outcomes, even after controlling for student baseline characteristics and academic performance. Especially as virtual advising interventions proliferate across higher education institutions, we show the value of applying a more codified, comprehensive lens for examining student engagement in these programs and chart a path to potentially improving the efficacy of these programs in the future.

Open source code on GitHub.

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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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Katharine Meyer, Lindsay C. Page, Eric Smith, B. Tyler Walsh, C. Lindsey Fifield, Michael Evans.

Despite documented benefits to college completion, more than a third of students who initially enroll in college do not ultimately earn a credential. Completing college requires students to navigate both institutional administrative tasks (e.g., registering for classes) and academic tasks within courses (e.g., completing homework). In postsecondary education, several promising interventions have shown that text-based outreach and communication can be a low-cost, easy to implement, and effective strategy for supporting administrative task navigation. In this paper, we report on a randomized controlled trial testing the effect of a text-based chatbot with artificial intelligence (AI) capability on students' academic task navigation. We find the academic chatbot significantly shifted students’ final grades, increasing the likelihood students received a course grade of B or higher by eight percentage points. We find large and significant treatment effects for first-generation students, estimating the intervention increased their final course grades by about 11 points on a 100-point scale (and a 16 percentage point increase in earning a B or higher) as well as their completion of and performance on individual course deliverables (e.g., readings, activities, exams).

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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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Maxwell J. Cook, Cory Koedel, Michael Reda.

We estimate the education and earnings returns to enrolling in technical two-year degree programs at community colleges in Missouri. A unique feature of the Missouri context is the presence of a highly-regarded, nationally-ranked technical college: State Technical College of Missouri (State Tech). Compared to enrolling in a non-technical community college program, we find that enrolling in a technical program at State Tech greatly increases students’ likelihoods of graduation and earnings. In contrast, there is no evidence that technical education programs at other Missouri community colleges increase graduation rates, and our estimates of the earnings impacts of these other programs are much smaller than for State Tech. Our findings exemplify the importance of institutional differences in driving the efficacy of technical education and suggest great potential for high-quality programs to improve student outcomes.

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