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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.
In this paper we estimate the effect of charter schools on the diversity of nearby traditional public schools (TPSs) and neighborhoods in New York City. We employ a difference-in-differences approach that exploits the differences in the expansion of the charter sector between grades in the same school. This approach allows us to isolate the effect of charter schools from other neighborhood demographic changes. Our results show small positive effects of charter school expansion on TPS diversity as measured by the entropy score. This change is explained by small increases in the number of White students attending nearby TPSs and larger reductions in the number of Black and Hispanic students in these schools. We also find descriptive evidence that while both neighborhoods and TPSs are slightly more diverse following charter school expansion, schools are changing faster than their surrounding neighborhoods.
Black and Latinx students are under-represented in Advanced Placement (AP) and Dual Enrollment (DE), and implicit bias of educators has been discussed as one potential contributing factor. In this study, I test whether implicit and explicit racial bias are related to AP and DE participation and racial/ethnic gaps in participation, controlling for various observable contextual factors. I find a small relationship between implicit racial bias and disparate AP participation for Black students relative to White students, and suggestive evidence of a relationship between explicit racial bias and disparate DE participation for Black students relative to White students. Further, more explicitly-biased communities tend to have lower AP participation rates overall. Implications for school leaders regarding implicit bias training and other ways to address systemic inequities in access are discussed.
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.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to an abrupt shift from in-person to virtual instruction in Spring 2020. We use two complementary difference-in differences frameworks, one that leverages within-instructor-by-course variation on whether students started their Spring 2020 courses in person or online and another that incorporates student fixed effects. 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 (three to six percent) on course completion. Our results suggest that faculty experience teaching a given course online does not mitigate the negative effects. In an exploratory analysis, we find minimal long-term impacts of the switch to online instruction.
This paper reports the results of a large, school-level randomized controlled trial evaluating a set of three informational interventions for young people choosing high schools in 473 middle schools, serving over 115,000 8th graders. The interventions differed in their level of customization to the student and their mode of delivery (paper or online); all treated schools received identical materials to scaffold the decision-making process. Every intervention reduced likelihood of application to and enrollment in schools with graduation rates below the city median (75 percent). An important channel is their effect on reducing nonoptimal first choice application strategies. Providing a simplified, middle-school specific list of relatively high graduation rate schools had the largest impacts, causing students to enroll in high schools with 1.5-percentage point higher graduation rates. Providing the same information online, however, did not alter students’ choices or enrollment. This appears to be due to low utilization. Online interventions with individual customization, including a recommendation tool and search engine, induced students to enroll in high schools with 1-percentage point higher graduation rates, but with more variance in impact. Together, these results show that successful informational interventions must generate engagement with the material, and this is possible through multiple channels.
Dual-enrollment courses are theorized to promote students' preparedness for college in part by bolstering their beneficial beliefs, such as academic self-efficacy, educational expectations, and sense of college belonging. These beliefs may also shape students' experiences and outcomes in dual-enrollment courses, yet few if any studies have examined this possibility. We study a large dual-enrollment program created by a university in the Southwest to examine these patterns. We find that mathematics self-efficacy and educational expectations predict performance in dual-enrollment courses, even when controlling for students' academic preparedness, while factors such as high school belonging, college belonging, and self-efficacy in other academic domains are unrelated to academic performance. However, we also find that students of color and first-generation students tend to have lower self-efficacy and educational expectations before enrolling in dual-enrollment courses, in addition to having lower levels of academic preparation. These findings suggest that students from historically marginalized populations may benefit from social-psychological as well as academic supports in order to receive maximum benefits from early postsecondary opportunities such as dual-enrollment. Our findings have implications for how states and dual-enrollment programs determine eligibility for dual-enrollment as well as how dual-enrollment programs should be designed and delivered in order to promote equity in college preparedness.
Despite the prevalence of school tracking, evidence on whether it improves student success is mixed. This paper studies how tracking within high school impacts high-achieving students’ short- and longer-term academic outcomes. Our setting is a large and selective Chinese high school, where first-year students are separated into high-achieving and regular classrooms based on their performance on a standardized exam. Classrooms differ in terms of peer ability, teacher quality, class size, as well as level and pace of instruction. Using newly collected administrative data and a regression discontinuity design, we show that high-achieving classrooms improve math test scores by 23 percent of a standard deviation, with effects persisting throughout the three years of high school. Effects on performance in Chinese and English language subjects are more muted. Importantly, we find that high-achieving classrooms substantially raise enrollment in elite universities, as they increase scores on the national college entrance exam—the sole determinant of university admission in China.
In the competitive U.S. higher education market, institutions differentiate themselves to attract both students and tuition dollars. One understudied example of this differentiation is the increasing trend of "colleges" becoming "universities" by changing their names. Leveraging variation in the timing of such conversions in an event study framework, I show that becoming a university increases enrollments at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, which leads to an increase in degree production and total revenues. I further find that these effects are largest when institutions are the first in their market to convert to a university and can lead to negative spillover effects on non-converting colleges.
Recent state policy efforts have focused on increasing attainment among adults with some college but no degree (SCND). Yet little is actually known about the SCND population. Using data from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), we provide the first detailed profile on the academic, employment, and earnings trajectories of the SCND population, and how these compare to VCCS graduates. We show that the share of SCND students who are academically ready to reenroll and would benefit from doing so may be substantially lower than policy makers anticipate. Specifically, we estimate that few SCND students (approximately three percent) could fairly easily re-enroll in fields of study from which they could reasonably expect a sizable earnings premium from completing their degree.