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Access and admissions

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David B. Monaghan, Elizabeth A. Hawke.

“Free college” programs are widespread in American higher education. They are discussed as addressing college access, affordability, inequality, and skills shortages. Many are last-dollar tuition guarantees restricted to use at single community colleges. Using student-level data spanning the transition to college, we investigate how two similar local community college tuition guarantees in Pennsylvania affected college-going outcomes. The Morgan Success Scholarship has large impacts on community college attendance and associate degree attainment. The program diverts students away from four-year colleges, though much of this effect is temporary. Meanwhile, we find little evidence that the Community College of Philadelphia’s 50th Anniversary Scholars program has any impact on college-going behavior. We suggest reasons for divergent findings and offer suggestions for practice.

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Bradley R. Curs, Casandra E. Harper, Sangmin Park.

This quasi-experimental study examined the effectiveness of a one-time emergency financial relief program among Pell Grant eligible undergraduate students in Spring 2015 pursuing their first bachelor’s degree across academic and financial outcomes. The academic outcomes included retention to the next semester, degree completion, attempted credit hours, and grade point average. The financial outcome captured whether students received a stop registration hold due to an unpaid financial balance in the semester after receiving the emergency relief. The results reveal that financial relief applied to low-income students’ accounts can improve their retention and graduation rates. The financial relief was most effective among first-generation college students, resulting in a complete elimination of the retention gap for first-generation students. The emergency relief did not improve GPA or substantially change the number of credits earned. A concerning finding was that students receiving this emergency support were more likely to receive a financial hold in a subsequent semester and that effect was stronger among students of color (Black/African American, Hispanic/Latine, Asian, Multiracial, American Indian/Alaska Native), males, and first-generation college students.

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David B. Monaghan.

“Free college” (sometimes called Promise) programs are common in U.S. higher education. Reviewing 88 studies of 25 state and local programs, I provide a nuanced picture of the mechanisms through which these programs may work and their likely effects on students, communities, and colleges. Some commonly-claimed mechanisms for these effects—e.g., improving secondary school environments or impacting residential decisions—lack empirical support or are implausible for most existing programs. Programs are consistently found to shift college-bound students to colleges where they can use more scholarship dollars, increase enrollment at eligible colleges, and (for generous local programs only) increase community school district enrollment. Less consistently, programs boost college participation and thereby degree attainment, but evidence for direct effects on college performance, persistence or completion net of enrollment is weak. There is insufficient or inconsistent evidence for program effects on secondary school performance and graduation, post-college income and debt, community population or property values, and inequality reduction according to gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

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Katherine Miller-Bains, Stephen Yu, Daphna Bassok.

Demand for child care in the United States outpaces supply. Understanding access issues is critical for addressing them and supporting children, families, and the economy. However, the most widely available proxy for child care supply—authorized capacity—likely overestimates care availability. Authorized capacity represents the maximum children a provider can legally serve based on safety regulations and physical characteristics of the site. However, the slots available across sites can be constrained by factors not captured by authorized capacity, including the combination of ages currently enrolled and staffing at a site. If the gap between authorized capacity and “current capacity” is large, we stand to underestimate needed investments to improve access. This study quantifies the gap between providers’ “current capacity” as reported in a fall 2022 survey and authorized capacity per administrative records. Using data from 1,968 home- and center-based providers in Virginia, we find three key limitations of authorized capacity as a proxy of supply. First, providers’ current capacity was 74% of their authorized capacity on average. Authorized capacity would overestimate child care availability by more than 30,000 slots across the providers in our sample. Second, center-based providers that accepted child care subsidies and those in neighborhoods with a greater concentration of poverty or people of color had significantly larger discrepancies between their current and authorized capacity. Finally, we find centers that reported challenges hiring and retaining staff had larger gaps between their current and authorized capacity compared to providers that did not report staffing challenges. These findings suggest the need for measures that more accurately and dynamically capture the number of children a provider can serve to better describe and address access inequities.

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David B. Monaghan, Crystal Almanzar, Madison Laughman, Allyson Ritchie.

Promise programs are discussed as a policy movement that began with the 2005 launch of the Kalamazoo Promise. Since then, programs bearing the Promise label or sharing similar features have spread across the higher educational landscape, appearing in most states and across postsecondary sectors. Simultaneously, scholarly literature discussing these programs has burgeoned. And yet, scholars and others are unable to formulate a clear conception of what a Promise program is and what if anything sets such a program apart from other scholarship programs (e.g., state need-based grants). In this paper, we examine how scholars have discussed these programs over time. We begin with the initial theorization of the Kalamazoo Promise as a case and observe its use as a prototype in the formulation of a general model once “Promise program” was established as a category. We follow how the spread and transformation of “Promise programs” was reflected in repeated partial reconceptualization. We find three competing conceptual models emerging in sequence: 1) a thick, place-based causal model derived as a generalization of the Kalamazoo Promise, 2) a thin empirical model crafted in the aftermath of the launch of the Tennessee Promise, and 3) a partially acknowledged minimal or symbolic model advanced haltingly in response to critiques of last-dollar community college state programs. Scholarly conceptualization is largely reactive to empirical program diffusion and transformation, though scholarly idealization may have played a role in this diffusion itself.

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Benjamin L. Castleman, Denise Deutschlander, Gabrielle Lohner.

While Hispanic students represent the fasting-growing segment of the American school-age population, substantial gaps exist in college enrollment and Bachelor’s attainment between Hispanic and White and Asian students. Numerous factors contribute to these disparities and disproportionally affect Hispanic youth. In this paper, we contribute evidence on the impact of an intensive college advising program on Hispanic students’ college participation and degree attainment. We report on a multi-cohort randomized controlled trial of College Forward, which provides individualized advising from junior year of high school through college for a majority Hispanic, lower-income student population in Texas. Students who receive College Forward advising are 7.1 percentage points more likely to earn a Bachelor’s degree within 5 years of high school graduation; this effect appears largely driven by shifting high school graduates from the extensive margin of not going to college at all to instead enroll at four-year colleges and universities. Despite the costs associated with intensive advising programs like College Forward, back of the envelope calculations suggest that the benefit from increased college graduation induced by the program outweighs operating costs in less than three years following college completion.

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Kelly Rosinger, Dominique J. Baker, Joseph Sturm, Wan Yu, Julie J. Park, OiYan Poon, Brian Heseung Kim, Stephanie Breen.

Most selective colleges implemented test-optional admissions during the pandemic, making college entrance exam scores optional for applicants. We draw on descriptive, two-way fixed effects, and event study methods to examine variation in test-optional implementation during the pandemic and how implementation relates to selectivity and enrollment. For “test-optional” colleges during the pandemic, we found substantial variation in policy type (e.g., test optional, test free) and whether the policy extended to all applicants and scholarship consideration. Findings suggest test-optional implementation related to increases in Black student enrollment, mostly at moderately selective colleges and when policies extended to all applicants and scholarships. At highly selective colleges, findings suggest test-optional implementation related to an increase in applications but not consistent gains in enrollment.

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Renzhi Jing, Sam Heft-Neal, Zetianyu Wang, Jie Chen, Minghao Qiu, Isaac M. Opper, Zachary Wagner, Eran Bendavid.

Increasing educational attainment is one of the most important and effective tools for health and economic improvements. The extent to which extreme climate events disrupt education, resulting in fewer years of schooling and reduced educational attainment, remains under-studied. Children in low- and middle-income countries may be uniquely vulnerable to loss of schooling after such disasters due to the poor physical condition of schools and the lack of resources to rebuild and mitigate unexpected household shocks. Our analysis assesses this overlooked social cost of tropical cyclones on schooling attainment.

We study the education records of nearly 5.1 million people living in 13 low- and middle-income countries that were exposed to tropical cyclones between 1954-2010. We find that exposure to tropical cyclones during preschool age is associated with a 2.7 percentage point decrease in primary school enrollment on average (14.2% decrease), with larger effects from more intense storms (up to 28% decrease for the most intense storms). These effects are more pronounced among school-age girls compared to boys and are greater in areas less accustomed to experiencing tropical cyclones. We estimate that, across all LMICs, tropical cyclone exposure has resulted in more than 410,000 children not attending primary school in the last 20 years, leading to a reduction of more than 4.1 million total years of schooling. These impacts, identified among some of the world’s poorest populations, may grow in importance as exposure to severe tropical cyclones is projected to increase with climate change.

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Carly D. Robinson, Katharine Meyer, Chasity Bailey-Fakhoury, Amirpasha Zandieh, Susanna Loeb.

College students make job decisions without complete information. As a result, they may rely on misleading heuristics (“interesting jobs pay badly”) and pursue options misaligned with their goals. We test whether highlighting job characteristics changes decision making. We find increasing the salience of a job’s monetary benefits increases the likelihood college students apply by 196%. In contrast, emphasizing prosocial, career, or social benefits has no effect, despite students identifying these benefits as primary motivators for applying. The study highlights the detrimental incongruencies in students’ decision making alongside a simple strategy for recruiting college students to jobs that offer enriching experiences.

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Di Xu, Kelli A. Bird, Michael Cooper, Benjamin L. Castleman.

Many public workforce training programs lead to industry-recognized, third-party awarded credentials, but little research has been conducted on the economic benefits of these credentials in the labor market. This paper provides quasi-experimental evidence on the labor market returns to industry-recognized credentials connected to community college workforce noncredit training programs. Based on novel data that includes approximately 24,000 working-age adults enrolled in noncredit workforce training programs at the Virginia Community College System, we employ a comparative individual-level fixed effects model to estimate earnings premia net of fixed attributes and earnings time-trends. Our results indicate that earning an industry-recognized credential, on average, increases quarterly earnings by approximately $1,000 and the probability of being employed by 2.4 percentage points, although there is substantial heterogeneity in economic return across different program fields. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the earnings gains associated with the industry credential obtained through the noncredit workforce training would exceed program costs in just over half a year on average.

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