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Program and policy effects
In this paper, I review the economics literature on for-profit college education in the United States, assessing what we know about institutional behavior and student outcomes after two decades of research. The many studies reviewed here reveal some consistent patterns. It is clear that for-profits compete with institutions in other sectors, yet they behave differently than their public and nonprofit counterparts. The literature is mixed on the responsiveness of the sector to labor market demands, but any responsiveness does not appear to translate to better student outcomes. The vast majority of studies on employment and earnings gains for students in for-profits find worse outcomes for for-profit students relative to similar students in other sectors. These disappointing results suggest that additional accountability measures may be warranted to protect students and taxpayers.
We provide novel evidence on the causal impacts of student absences in middle and high school on state test scores, course grades, and educational attainment using a rich administrative dataset that tracks the date and class period of each absence. We use two similar but distinct identification strategies that address potential endogeneity due to time-varying student-level shocks by exploiting within-student, between-subject variation in class-specific absences. We also leverage information on the timing of absences to show that absences that occur after the annual window for state standardized testing do not affect test scores, providing a further check of our identification strategy. Both approaches yield similar results. We nd that absences in middle and high school harm contemporaneous student achievement and longer-term educational attainment: On average, missing 10 classes reduces math or English Language Arts test scores by 3-4% of a standard deviation and course grades by 17-18% of a standard deviation. 10 total absences across all subjects in 9th grade reduce both the probability of on-time graduation and ever enrolling in college by 2%. Learning loss due to school absences can have profound economic and social consequences.
Despite the growing evidence of informational interventions on college and major choices, we know little about how such light-touch interventions affect the gender gap in STEM majors. Linking survey data to administrative records of Chinese college applicants, we conducted a large-scale randomized experiment to examine the STEM gender gap in the major preference beliefs, application behaviors, and admissions outcomes. We find that female students are less likely to prefer, apply to, and enroll in STEM majors, particularly Engineering majors. In a school-level cluster randomized controlled trial, we provided treated students with major-specific wage information. Students’ major preferences are easily malleable that 39% of treated students updated their preferences after receiving the wage informational intervention. The wage informational intervention has no statistically significant impacts on female students’ STEM-related major applications and admissions. In contrast, those male students in rural areas who likely lack such information are largely shifted into STEM majors as a result of the intervention. We provide supporting evidence of heterogeneous major preferences for extrinsic incentives: even among those students who are most likely to be affected by the wage information (prefer high paying majors and lack the wage information), female students are less responsive to the informational intervention.
We provide theory and evidence about how the design of college financial aid programs affects a variety of high school, college, and life outcomes. The evidence comes from an eight-year randomized trial where 2,587 high school ninth graders received a $12,000 merit-based grant offer. During high school, the program increased their college expectations and non-merit effort but had no effect on merit-related effort (e.g., GPA). After high school, the program increased graduation from two-year colleges only, apparently because of the free college design/framing in only that sector. But we see no effects on incarceration or teen pregnancy. Overall, the results suggest that free college affects student outcomes in ways similar to what advocates of free college suggest and making aid commitments early, well before college starts, increases some forms of high school effort. But we see no evidence that merit requirements are effective. Both the standard human capital model and behavioral economics are required to explain these results.
Principals (policy makers) have debated the progress in U. S. student performance for a half century or more. Informing these conversations, survey agents have administered seven million psychometrically linked tests in math and reading in 160 waves to national probability samples of selected cohorts born between 1954 and 2007. This study is the first to assess consistency of results by agency. We find results vary by agent, but consistent with Flynn effects, gains are larger in math than reading, except for the most recent period. Non-whites progress at a faster pace. Socio-economically disadvantaged white, black, and Hispanic students make greater progress when tested in elementary school, but that advantage attenuates and reverses itself as students age. We discuss potential moderators.
Education has faced unprecedented disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic; evidence about the subsequent effect on children is of crucial importance. We use data from an oral reading fluency (ORF) assessment—a rapid assessment taking only a few minutes that measures a fundamental reading skill—to examine COVID’s effects on children’s reading ability during the pandemic in more than 100 U.S. school districts. Effects were pronounced, especially for Grades 2–3, but distinct across spring and fall 2020. While many students were not assessed in spring 2020, those who were seemed to have experienced relatively limited or no growth in ORF relative to gains observed in other years. In fall 2020, a far more representative set of students was observed. For those students, growth was more pronounced and seemed to approach levels observed in previous years. Worryingly, there were also signs of stratification such that students in lower-achieving districts may be falling further behind. However, at the level of individual students, those who were struggling with reading prior to the pandemic were not disproportionately impacted in terms of ORF growth. This data offers an important window onto how a foundational skill is being affected by COVID-19 and this approach can be used in the future to examine how student abilities recover as education enters a post-COVID paradigm.
Graduate student teaching assistants from underrepresented groups may provide salient role models and enhanced instruction to minority students in STEM fields. We explore minority student-TA interactions in an important course in the sciences and STEM – introductory chemistry labs – at a large public university. The uncommon assignment method of students to TA instructors in these chemistry labs overcomes selection problems, and the small and active learning classroom setting with required attendance provides frequent interactions with the TA. We find evidence that underrepresented minority students are less likely to drop courses and are more likely to pass courses when assigned to minority TAs, but we do not find evidence of effects for grades and medium-term outcomes. The effects for the first-order outcomes are large with a decrease in the drop rate by 5.5 percentage points on a base of 6 percent, and an increase in the pass rate of 4.8 percentage points on a base of 93.6 percent. The findings are similar when we focus on Latinx student - Latinx TA interactions. The findings are robust to first-time vs. multiple enrollments in labs, specifications with different levels of fixed effects, limited choice of TA race, limited information of TAs, and low registration priority students. The findings have implications for debates over increasing diversity among PhD students in STEM fields because of spillovers to minority undergraduates.
Many state governments impose tuition regulations on universities in pursuit of college affordability. How effective are these regulations? We study how universities' "sticker price'' and institutional financial aid change during and after tuition caps and freezes by leveraging temporal and geographic variation in the United States from 1990 to 2013. We find that listed tuition is lower than it would have been in the absence of the regulation by 6.3 (9.3) percentage points at four-year (two-year) colleges during the regulation. Meanwhile, the negative impact on institutional aid at four-year colleges during a tuition cap/freeze is nearly double (-11.3 percentage points) the impact on listed tuition, implying that universities adjust institutional aid in order to recoup some of their losses from the tuition cap/freeze. Effects are long-lasting at four-year institutions; two years after the regulation is lifted, tuition is 7.3 percentage points lower and institutional aid is 19.5 percentage points lower than it would have been without the regulation. Meanwhile at two-year colleges, tuition "catches up" so that by three years after the end of the regulation tuition is not statistically different from what it would have been in the absence of the regulation. Universities that are not research-intensive and universities that have a greater dependency on tuition revenue exhibit larger negative impacts on institutional aid with smaller impacts on "sticker price''. Our estimates suggest that tuition caps and freezes do not simply lower the prices that students pay for college and that the benefit of tuition regulations is unequally spread across types of universities and students.
Using individual data from PIAAC and aggregate data on GDP and unemployment for the US, Europe, and Spain, we test how macroeconomic conditions experienced at age eighteen affect the following decisions in post-secondary and tertiary education: i) enrollment ii) dropping-out, iii) type of degree completed, iv) area of specialization, and v) time-to-degree. We also analyze how the effects differ by gender and parental background. Our findings are different for each of these geographies, which shows that the impacts of macroeconomic conditions on higher education decisions depend on context, such as labor markets and education systems. By analyzing various components of higher education together, we are able to obtain a clearer picture of how potential mechanisms linked to lower opportunity costs of education and reduced ability to pay during economic downturns interact to determine student selection.
Occupational credentials provide an additional—and, at times, alternative—path other than traditional academic degrees for individuals to increase productivity and demonstrate their abilities and qualifications to employers. These credentials take the form of licenses and certifications. Although a critical part of the workforce landscape, the literature on the returns to credentials is inadequate, with prior research having limited causal identification, typically relying on OLS regressions which do not sufficiently control for selection. Using questions that identify credential receipt from the 2015 and 2016 Current Population Surveys, we construct an instrumental variable of local peer influence using the within-labor market credential rate of individuals sharing the same sociodemographic characteristics, while controlling for the same group’s average wages and a suite of demographic and geographic controls. We use this instrument in a marginal treatment effects estimator, which allows for estimation of the average treatment effect and determines the direction of selection, and we estimate the effects of credentials on labor market outcomes. We find large, meaningful returns in the form of increased employment, an effect which is concentrated primarily among women. The effect of having a credential on log wages is higher for those in the sub-baccalaureate labor market, suggesting the potential role of occupational credentials as an alternative path to marketable human capital and a signal of skills in the absence of a bachelor’s degree.