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Post-secondary education

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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George Bulman, Robert Fairlie.

Although enrollment at California’s four-year public universities mostly remained unchanged by the pandemic, the effects were substantial for students at California Community Colleges, the largest higher education system in the country. This paper provides a detailed analysis of how the pandemic impacted the enrollment patterns, fields of study, and academic outcomes of these students through the first four semesters after it started. Consistent with national trends, enrollment dropped precipitously during the pandemic – the total number of enrolled students fell by 11 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and by another 7 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021. The California Community College system lost nearly 300,000 students over this period. Our analysis reveals that enrollment reductions were largest among African-American and Latinx students, and were larger among continuing students than first-time students. We find no evidence that having a large online presence prior to the pandemic protected colleges from these negative effects. Enrollment changes were substantial across a wide range of fields and were large for both vocational courses and academic courses that can be transferred to four-year institutions. In terms of course performance, changes in completion rates, withdrawal rates, and grades primarily occurred in the spring of 2020. These findings of the effects of the pandemic at community colleges have implications for policy, impending budgetary pressures, and future research.

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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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Danielle Lowry, Lindsay C. Page, Jennifer Iriti.

Award displacement occurs when one type of financial aid award directly contributes to the change in quantity of another award. We explore whether postsecondary institutions displaced awards in response to the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship by capitalizing on the doubling of the maximum Promise amount in 2012. We use de-identified student-level data on each Promise recipient’s actual cost of attendance, grants, and scholarships, as well as demographic and academic characteristics from school district administrative files to examine whether and how components of students’ financial aid packages and total costs of attendance changed after the Promise award increase. To account for overall trends in pricing and financial aid, we compare Promise recipients to the average first-time, full-time freshman entering the same institutions in the same year as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). With these two data sources, we assess differences in costs and awards between Promise students and their peers, on average, and examine whether and in what ways these differences changed after the increase in Promise funding. We refer to this strategy as a “quasi-difference-in-differences” design. We do not find evidence that institutions are responding to the Promise increase through aid reductions.

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Lucas Husted, Isaac M. Opper, R. Jisung Park.

We show that natural disasters affect a region’s aggregate human capital through at least four channels. In addition to causing out-migration, natural disasters reduce student achievement, lower high school graduation rates, and decrease post-secondary attendance. We estimate that disasters that cause at least $500 in per capita property damage reduce the net present value (NPV) of an affected county’s human capital by an average of $505 per person. These negative effects on human capital are not restricted to large disasters: less severe events – disasters with property damages of $100-$500 per capita – also cause significant and persistent reductions in student achievement and post-secondary attendance.

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Shamena Anwar, Matthew Baird, John Engberg, Rosanna Smart.

The primary goal of job training programs is to improve employment and earning outcomes of participants. However, effective job training programs may have potential secondary benefits, including in the form of reduced arrests. In this paper, we evaluate the impact of a job training program in New Orleans that was implemented using a randomized controlled trial design. We find that among those who had a prior criminal record, those assigned to the treatment group were two-fifths as likely to get arrested as those assigned to the control group at any time point after randomization. We explore several potential mechanisms for why this effect occurs and find suggestive evidence that the training program’s impact on wages, as well as peer effects from other trainees, can partially explain this effect.

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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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