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Post-secondary education

Serena Canaan, Stefanie Fischer, Pierre Mouganie, Geoffrey C. Schnorr.
To boost college graduation rates, policymakers often advocate for academic supports such as coaching or mentoring. Proactive and intensive coaching interventions are effective, but are costly and difficult to scale. We evaluate a relatively lower-cost group coaching program targeted at first-year college students placed on academic probation. Participants attend a workshop where coaches aim to normalize failure and improve self-confidence. Coaches also facilitate a process whereby participants reflect on their academic difficulties, devise solutions to address their challenges, and create an action plan. Participants then hold a one-time follow-up meeting with their coach or visit a campus resource. Using a difference-in-discontinuity design, we show that the program raises students’ first-year GPA by 14.6% of a standard deviation, and decreases the probability of first-year dropout by 8.5 percentage points. Effects are concentrated among lower-income students who also experience a significant increase in the probability of graduating. Finally, using administrative data we provide the first evidence that coaching/mentoring may have substantial long-run effects as we document significant gains in lower-income students’ earnings 7–9 years following entry to the university. Our findings indicate that targeted, group coaching can be an effective way to improve marginal students’ academic and early career outcomes.

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Monnica Chan, Zachary Mabel, Preeya Pandya Mbekeani.

Performance-based funding models for higher education, which tie state support for institutions to performance on student outcomes, have proliferated in recent decades. Some states have designed these policies to also address educational attainment gaps by including bonus payments for traditionally low-performing groups. Using a Synthetic Control Method research design, we examine the impact of these funding regimes on race-based completion gaps in Tennessee and Ohio. We find no evidence that performance-based funding narrowed race-based completion gaps. In fact, contrary to their intended purpose, we find that performance-based funding widened existing gaps in certificate completion in Tennessee. Across both states, the estimated impacts on associate degree outcomes are also directionally consistent with performance-based funding exacerbating racial inequities in associate degree attainment.

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Kevin J. Mumford.

Financing college expenses through an income share agreement (ISA) is an arrangement where the student agrees to pay a fixed percentage of future earned income for a designated period of time in exchange for college funding. Using administrative and survey data for all eligible applicants to a university ISA program, I estimate the adverse selection into the ISA and provide preliminary estimates of the moral hazard for ISA participants. Identification of adverse selection comes from being able to observe the full set of eligible students who apply to the program. There is evidence of selection on the offered income share rate (which is determined by the student’s major) as well as on parent characteristics, though not parent income. Surprisingly, there is no evidence of adverse selection on student ability as measured by SAT score and college grades. I find no differential selection on other student characteristics including demographics and measures of debt aversion, risk aversion, and time preference. Controlling for observable factors, ISA participation increases the likelihood of college graduation by 3 percentage points and decreases starting salary by $5,000 on average.

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Stephanie Owen.

Beliefs about relative academic performance may shape field specialization and explain gender gaps in STEM enrollment, but little causal evidence exists. To test whether these beliefs are malleable and salient enough to change behavior, I run a randomized controlled trial with 5,700 undergraduates across seven introductory STEM courses. Providing relative performance information shrinks gender gaps in biased beliefs substantially and closes ten percent of the gender gap in subsequent STEM course-taking. The gap closes due to men taking fewer STEM credits; women’s behavior is unchanged, implying that male overconfidence rather than female underconfidence contributes to gaps in specialization. Beliefs matter, but may not be a useful target for facilitating female STEM participation.

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Robert W. Fairlie, George Bulman.

This paper examines how the pandemic impacted the enrollment patterns, fields of study, and academic outcomes of students in the California Community College System, the largest higher-education system in the country. 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 Black/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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Devon L. Graves.

Every year millions of students seeking access to federal financial aid complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application which grants an estimated $234 billion in federal aid in the 2020-21 academic year. Upon receiving students’ FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education selects some students for income verification, a process in which educational institutions check the accuracy of the information students filled out on the FAFSA. I conducted semi-structured interviews with 17 Latinx community college students to identify barriers in the verification process. Using Critical Race Theory, I contend the verification process reflects and upholds institutional racism within the financial aid process through three barriers. Latinx students experience concern and confusion upon receiving notification of verification selection, difficulty locating requested documentation and acquiring parents’ signature, and undergo a lengthy review of their verification forms which delays receipt of their financial aid.

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Brian Heseung Kim, Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman.

Despite decades and hundreds of billions of dollars of federal and state investment in policies to promote postsecondary educational attainment as a key lever for increasing the economic mobility of lower-income populations, research continues to show large and meaningful differences in the mid-career earnings of students from families in the bottom and top income quintiles. Prior research has not disentangled whether these disparities are due to differential sorting into colleges and majors, or due to barriers lower socioeconomic status (SES) graduates encounter during the college-to-career transition. Using linked individual-level higher education and Unemployment Insurance (UI) records for nearly a decade of students from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), we compare the labor market outcomes of higher- and lower-SES community college graduates within the same college, program, and academic performance level. Our analyses show that, conditional on employment, lower-SES graduates earn nearly $500/quarter less than their higher-SES peers one year after graduation, relative to higher-SES graduate average of $10,846/quarter. The magnitude of this disparity persists through at least three years after graduation. Disparities are concentrated among non-Nursing programs, in which gaps persist seven years from graduation. Our results highlight the importance of greater focus on the college-to-career transition.

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Emily Rauscher, Haoming Song.

Infant sex ratios that differ from the biological norm provide a measure of gender status inequality that is not susceptible to social desirability bias. Ratios may become less biased with educational expansion through reduced preference for male children. Alternatively, bias could increase with education through more access to sex-selective medical technologies. Using National Vital Statistics data on the population of live births in the U.S. 1969-2018, we examine trends in infant sex ratios by parental race/ethnicity, education, and birth parity over 5 decades. We find son-biased infant sex ratios among Chinese and Asian Indian births that persist in recent years and regressions suggest son-biased ratios among births to Filipino and Japanese mothers with less than high school education. Infant sex ratios are more balanced at higher levels of maternal education,  particularly when both parents are college educated. Results suggest greater equality of gender status with higher education in the U.S.

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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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