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Post-secondary education

Todd Pugatch, Elizabeth Schroeder, Nicholas Wilson.

We design a commitment contract for college students, "Study More Tomorrow," and conduct a randomized control trial testing a model of its demand. The contract commits students to attend peer tutoring if their midterm grade falls below a pre-specified threshold. The contract carries a financial penalty for noncompliance, in contrast to other commitment devices for studying tested in the literature. We find demand for the contract, with take-up of 10% among students randomly assigned a contract offer. Contract demand is not higher among students randomly assigned to a lower contract price, plausibly because a lower contract price also means a lower commitment benefit of the contract. Students with the highest perceived utility for peer tutoring have greater demand for commitment, consistent with our model. Contrary to the model's predictions, we fail to find evidence of increased demand among present-biased students or among those with higher self-reported tendency to procrastinate. Our results show that college students are willing to pay for study commitment devices. The sources of this demand do not align fully with behavioral theories, however.

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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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Cory Koedel, Trang Pham.

We study the conditional gender wage gap among faculty at public research universities in the U.S. We begin by using a cross-sectional dataset from 2016 to replicate the long-standing finding in research that conditional on rich controls, female faculty earn less than their male colleagues. Next, we construct a data panel to track the evolution of the wage gap through 2021. We show that the gap is narrowing. It declined by more than 50 percent over the course of our data panel to the point where by 2021, it is no longer detectable at conventional levels of statistical significance.

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Johnathan G. Conzelmann, Steven W. Hemelt, Brad J. Hershbein, Shawn Martin, Andrew Simon, Kevin Stange.

This paper introduces a new measure of the labor markets served by colleges and universities across the United States. About 50 percent of recent college graduates are living and working in the metro area nearest the institution they attended, with this figure climbing to 67 percent in-state. The geographic dispersion of alumni is more than twice as great for highly selective 4-year institutions as for 2-year institutions. However, more than one-quarter of 2-year institutions disperse alumni more diversely than the average public 4-year institution. In one application of these data, we find that the average strength of the labor market to which a college sends its graduates predicts college-specific intergenerational economic mobility. In a second application, we quantify the extent of “brain drain” across areas and illustrate the importance of considering migration patterns of college graduates when estimating the social return on public investment in higher education.

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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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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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