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Access and admissions

Dave E. Marcotte, Taylor Delaney.

How have changes in the costs of enrolling for full-time study at public 2-year and 4-year colleges have affected the decisions about whether and where to enroll in college? We exploit local differences in the growth of tuition at community colleges and public 4-year colleges to study the impact of public higher education costs on the postsecondary enrollment decisions of high school graduates over three decades. We model prospective students’ decisions about whether to attend community college, a public 4-year university in their state of residence, other colleges, or no college at all as relative costs change. Unlike institutional analyses, our contribution is not to model how enrollment changes at a particular college or type of college as costs change. But, we draw from the institutional literature to help identify enrollment impacts by instrumenting college costs using policy variation imposed by state appropriations and tuition caps. We estimate that in counties where local community college tuition doubled (about average for the study period), the likelihood of post-secondary enrollment fell by about 0.06, on a mean of about 0.80. In addition to reducing college enrollment overall, rising costs at community colleges diverted other students to 4-year colleges. Rising relative costs of 4-year public colleges similarly diverted some students toward community colleges, but did not limit college attendance in the aggregate. We also find evidence of endogeneity in cost setting at the institution level. Our preferred estimates rely on a control function approach that instruments intertemporal changes in institutional costs using state and local appropriations and state policies to restrict tuition growth.

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Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Gabrielle Lohner.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an abrupt shift from in-person to virtual instruction in Spring 2020. Using two complementary difference-in-differences frameworks, one that incorporates student fixed effects and another that leverages within-course variation on whether students started their Spring 2020 courses in-person or online, we estimate the impact of this shift on the academic performance of Virginia’s community college students. With both approaches, we find modest negative impacts (four to eight percent) on course completion. Our results suggest that faculty experience teaching a given course online does not mitigate the negative effects of students abruptly switching to online instruction.

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Lauren Russell, Lei Yu, Michael J. Andrews.

We investigate how the presence of a college affects local educational attainment using historical natural experiments in which "runner-up" locations were strongly considered to become college sites but ultimately not chosen for as-good-as-random reasons. While runner-up counties have since had opportunity to establish their own colleges, winners are still more likely to have a college today. Using this variation, we find that winning counties today have college degree attainment rates 58% higher than runner-up counties and have larger shares of employment in high human capital sectors. These effects are not driven primarily by college employees, migration, or local development.

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Thomas S. Dee, Elizabeth Huffaker, Cheryl Philips, Eric Sagara.

Before the 2020-21 school year, educators, policymakers, and parents confronted the stark and uncertain trade-offs implied by the health, educational, and economic consequences of offering instruction remotely, in person, or through a hybrid of the two. Most public schools in the U.S. chose remote-only instruction and enrollment fell dramatically (i.e., a loss of roughly 1.1 million K-12 students). We examine the impact of these choices on public-school enrollment using unique panel data that combine district-level enrollment trajectories with information on their instructional modes. We find offering remote-only instead of in-person instruction reduced enrollment by 1.1 percentage points (i.e., a 42 percent increase in disenrollment from -2.6 to -3.7 percent). The disenrollment effects of remote instruction are concentrated in kindergarten and, to a lesser extent, elementary schools. We do not find consistent evidence that remote instruction influenced middle or high-school enrollment or that hybrid instruction had an impact.

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Alex Eble, Feng Hu.

The quality of college education is hard for students and employers to observe. Knowing this, in the last 40 years over 1,000 colleges in the US and China alone have changed their names to signal higher quality. We study how these changes affect college choice and labor market performance of college graduates. Using administrative data, we show that colleges which change their names enroll higher-aptitude students and the effects persist over time. These effects are larger for attractive but misleading name changes, and larger among students with less information about the college. In a large resume audit study of the labor market for recent graduates, we find a small, insignificant premium for applicants listing new college names in most jobs, but a penalty in low-pay, low-status jobs. To better understand these results, we analyze scraped online text data, survey data, and other administrative data. These show that while many college applicants lack important information about college quality, employers can see that college name changes lead to an increase in graduate aptitude. Our study demonstrates that signals designed to change perception can have real, lasting impacts on market outcomes.

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Oded Gurantz, Ryan Sakoda, Shayak Sarkar.

This paper examines how financial aid reform based on postsecondary institutional performance impacts student choice. Federal and state regulations often reflect concerns about the private, for-profit sector's poor employment outcomes and high loan defaults, despite the sector's possible theoretical advantages. We use student level data to examine how eliminating public subsidies to attend low-performing for-profit institutions impacts students' college enrollment and completion behavior. Beginning in 2011, California tightened eligibility standards for their state aid program, effectively eliminating most for-profit eligibility. Linking data on aid application to administrative payment and postsecondary enrollment records, this paper utilizes a differences-in-differences strategy to investigate students' enrollment and degree completion responses to changes in subsidies. We find that restricting the use of the Cal Grant at for-profit institutions resulted in significant state savings but led to relatively small changes in students' postsecondary trajectories. For older, non-traditional students we find no impact on enrollment or degree completion outcomes. Similarly, for high school graduates, we find that for-profit enrollment remains strong. Unlike the older, non-traditional students, however, there is some evidence of declines in for-profit degree completion and increased enrollment at community colleges among the high school graduates, but these results are fairly small and sensitive to empirical specification. Overall, our results suggest that both traditional and non-traditional students have relatively inelastic preferences for for-profit colleges under aid-restricting policies.

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Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Zachary Mabel, Yifeng Song.

Colleges have increasingly turned to predictive analytics to target at-risk students for additional support. Most of the predictive analytic applications in higher education are proprietary, with private companies offering little transparency about their underlying models. We address this lack of transparency by systematically comparing two important dimensions: (1) different approaches to sample and variable construction and how these affect model accuracy; and (2) how the selection of predictive modeling approaches, ranging from methods many institutional researchers would be familiar with to more complex machine learning methods, impacts model performance and the stability of predicted scores. The relative ranking of students’ predicted probability of completing college varies substantially across modeling approaches. While we observe substantial gains in performance from models trained on a sample structured to represent the typical enrollment spells of students and with a robust set of predictors, we observe similar performance between the simplest and most complex models.

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Matthew D. Baird, John Engberg, Isaac M. Opper.

We consider the case in which the number of seats in a program is limited, such as a job training program or a supplemental tutoring program, and explore the implications that peer effects have for which individuals should be assigned to the limited seats. In the frequently-studied case in which all applicants are assigned to a group, the average outcome is not changed by shuffling the group assignments if the peer effect is linear in the average composition of peers. However, when there are fewer seats than applicants, the presence of linear-in-means peer effects can dramatically influence the optimal choice of who gets to participate. We illustrate how peer effects impact optimal seat assignment, both under a general social welfare function and under two commonly used social welfare functions. We next use data from a recent job training RCT to provide the first evidence of large peer effects in the context of job training for disadvantaged adults. Finally, we combine the two results to show that the program's effectiveness varies greatly depending on whether the assignment choices account for or ignore peer effects.

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Michael Bloem, Weixiang Pan, Jonathan Smith.

Using administrative data from Georgia, we provide the first study of the full set of college entrance exam-taking strategies, including who takes the ACT and the SAT (or both), when they take the exams, and how many times they take each exam. We have several main findings. First, one-third of exam takers take both the ACT and SAT. Second, we see pronounced disparities in several measures of exam-taking strategy by free- and reduced-price lunch status, even after including a rich set of controls, but not by underrepresented minority status. Third, we find evidence that taking more total exams leads to higher admissions-relevant test scores and a higher likelihood of enrolling in colleges with relatively high graduation rates and earnings. However, these relationships with test scores and college enrollment are smaller for those who take both the ACT and SAT, as opposed to retaking the same exam multiple times.

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Christa Deneault.

Barriers to accessing financial aid may keep students from matriculating to college. To test whether FAFSA completion is one of these barriers, I utilize a natural experiment brought about by a Louisiana mandate for seniors to file the FAFSA upon graduation from high school. Exploiting pre-treatment FAFSA completion rates as a treatment intensity in a dosage differences-in-differences specification, I find that a 10 percentage point lower pre-treatment FAFSA completion rate for a school implies a 1 percentage point larger increase in post-mandate college enrollment.

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