Learning difficulties

Kevin Lewis

January 07, 2019

Elite Schools and Opting-In: Effects of College Selectivity on Career and Family Outcomes
Suqin Ge, Elliott Isaac & Amalia Miller
NBER Working Paper, November 2018


Using College and Beyond data and a variant on Dale and Krueger's (2002) matched-applicant approach, this paper revisits the question of how attending an elite college affects later-life outcomes. We expand the scope along two dimensions: we do not restrict the sample to full-time full-year workers and we examine labor force participation, human capital, and family formation. For men, our findings echo those in Dale and Krueger (2002): controlling for selection eliminates the positive relationship between college selectivity and earnings. We also find no significant effects on men's educational or family outcomes. The results are quite different for women: we find effects on both career and family outcomes. Attending a school with a 100-point higher average SAT score increases women's probability of advanced degree attainment by 5 percentage points and earnings by 14 percent, while reducing their likelihood of marriage by 4 percentage points. The effect of college selectivity on own earnings is significantly larger for married than for single women. Among married women, selective college attendance significantly increases spousal education.

The Effect of Grade Retention on Adult Crime: Evidence from a Test-Based Promotion Policy
Ozkan Eren, Michael Lovenheim & Naci Mocan
NBER Working Paper, December 2018


This paper presents the first analysis in the literature of the effect of test-based grade retention on adult criminal convictions. We exploit math and English test cutoffs for promotion to ninth grade in Louisiana using administrative data on all public K-12 students combined with administrative data on all criminal convictions in the state. Our preferred models use the promotion discontinuity as an instrument for grade retention, and we find that being retained in eighth grade has large long-run effects on the likelihood of being convicted of a crime by age 25 and on the number of criminal convictions by age 25. Effects are largest for violent crimes: the likelihood of being convicted increases by 1.05 percentage points, or 58.44%, when students are retained in eighth grade. Our data allow an examination of mechanisms, and we show that the effects are likely driven by declines in high school peer quality, lowered non-cognitive skill acquisition, and a reduction in educational attainment. However, we find little effect on juvenile crime, which suggests the effects on adult criminal engagement are driven by worse job market prospects and non-cognitive skills that stem from lower educational investments by students. Using the method proposed by Angrist and Rokkanen (2015), we also estimate effects of grade retention away from the promotion cutoff and show that our results are generalizable to a larger group of low-performing students. Our estimates indicate that test-based promotion cutoffs lead to large private and social costs in terms of higher levels of long-run criminal convictions that are important to consider in the development and use of these policies.

Education for All? A Nationwide Audit Study of Schools of Choice
Peter Bergman & Isaac McFarlin
NBER Working Paper, December 2018


School choice may allow schools to “cream skim” students perceived as easier to educate. To test this, we sent emails from fictitious parents to 6,452 schools in 29 states and Washington, D.C. The fictitious parent asked whether any student is eligible to apply to the school and how to apply. Each email signaled a randomly assigned attribute of the child. We find that schools are less likely to respond to inquiries from students with poor behavior, low achievement, or a special need. Lower response rates to students with a potentially significant special need are driven by charter schools. Otherwise, these results hold for traditional public schools in areas of school choice and high-value added schools.

Debt burden after college: The effect of student loan debt on graduates’ employment, additional schooling, family formation, and home ownership
Erin Velez, Melissa Cominole & Alexander Bentz
Education Economics, forthcoming


This paper measures the effects of undergraduate student loan debt on graduates’ post-college outcomes: employment, additional enrollment, family formation, home ownership, and net worth. The analysis uses data from a nationally representative sample of 2007–08 bachelor’s degree recipients. Because a graduate’s debt burden is not randomly assigned, we use an instrumental variable – enrollment-weighted average in-state tuition over four years – to estimate the effect of debt on post-baccalaureate outcomes while minimizing selection bias. We find that four years after graduating, undergraduate debt is related to borrowers’ earnings, job choice, decisions to marry and have children, and net worth.

Closing the Gap: The Effect of a Targeted, Tuition-Free Promise on College Choices of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students
Susan Dynarski et al.
NBER Working Paper, December 2018


Low-income students, even those with strong academic credentials, are unlikely to attend a highly selective college. With a field experiment, we test an intervention to increase enrollment of low-income students at the highly selective University of Michigan. We contact students (as well as their parents and principals) with an encouragement to apply and a promise of four years of free tuition and fees upon admission. Materials emphasize that this offer is not contingent on completing aid applications (e.g., the FAFSA or PROFILE). Treated students were more than twice as likely to apply to (67 percent vs. 26 percent) and enroll at (27 percent vs. 12 percent) the University of Michigan. There was no diversion from schools as (or more) selective as UM. The enrollment effect of 15 percentage points (pp) comprises students who would otherwise attend a less selective, four-year college (7 pp), a community college (4 pp), or no college (4 pp). Effects persist through two years of follow-up. The intervention closed by half the income gaps in college choice among Michigan's high-achieving students. We conclude that an encouragement to apply, paired with a promise of aid, when communicated to students and influential adults, can substantially close income gaps in college choices.

Experimental Estimates of the Student Attendance Production Function
Long Tran & Seth Gershenson
American University Working Paper, October 2018


Student attendance is both a critical input and intermediate output of the education production function. However, the malleable classroom-level determinants of student attendance are poorly understood. We estimate the causal effect of class size and observable teacher qualifications on student attendance rates by leveraging the random classroom assignments made by Tennessee's Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) class size experiment. A ten-student increase in class size raises the probability of being chronically absent by about three percentage points (21%). For black students, random assignment to a black teacher reduces the probability of chronic absence by 3.1 percentage points (26%). These suggest that a small, but nontrivial, share (about 5%) of class-size and race-match effects on student achievement are driven by changes in students' attendance habits.

Testing, Stress, and Performance: How Students Respond Physiologically to High-Stakes Testing
Jennifer Heissel et al.
NBER Working Paper, November 2018


A potential contributor to socioeconomic disparities in academic performance is the difference in the level of stress experienced by students outside of school. Chronic stress – due to neighborhood violence, poverty, or family instability – can affect how individuals’ bodies respond to stressors in general, including the stress of standardized testing. This, in turn, can affect whether performance on standardized tests is a valid measure of students’ actual ability. We collect data on students’ stress responses using cortisol samples provided by low-income students in New Orleans. We measure how their cortisol patterns change during high-stakes testing weeks relative to baseline weeks. We find that high-stakes testing does affect cortisol responses, and those responses have consequences for test performance. Those who responded most strongly – with either a large increase or large decrease in cortisol – scored 0.40 standard deviations lower than expected on the high-stakes exam.

Changing demographics of scientific careers: The rise of the temporary workforce
Staša Milojević, Filippo Radicchi & John Walsh
Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, 11 December 2018, Pages 12616-12623


Contemporary science has been characterized by an exponential growth in publications and a rise of team science. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of awarded PhD degrees, which has not been accompanied by a similar expansion in the number of academic positions. In such a competitive environment, an important measure of academic success is the ability to maintain a long active career in science. In this paper, we study workforce trends in three scientific disciplines over half a century. We find dramatic shortening of careers of scientists across all three disciplines. The time over which half of the cohort has left the field has shortened from 35 y in the 1960s to only 5 y in the 2010s. In addition, we find a rapid rise (from 25 to 60% since the 1960s) of a group of scientists who spend their entire career only as supporting authors without having led a publication. Altogether, the fraction of entering researchers who achieve full careers has diminished, while the class of temporary scientists has escalated. We provide an interpretation of our empirical results in terms of a survival model from which we infer potential factors of success in scientific career survivability. Cohort attrition can be successfully modeled by a relatively simple hazard probability function. Although we find statistically significant trends between survivability and an author’s early productivity, neither productivity nor the citation impact of early work or the level of initial collaboration can serve as a reliable predictor of ultimate survivability.

Early Work Experience and Developing STEM & Engineering Talent: Evidence from Randomized Assignment to 'Experiential' Education
Kevin Boudreau & Matt Marx
Northeastern University Working Paper, October 2018


We investigate the effects that early exposure to professional work experience has on 2,243 Engineering undergraduates from a top-40 US program. Individuals were randomized as to whether they are exposed to full-time professional work terms in their second year of undergraduate studies or, later, in their third year. Earlier exposure to professional work experience leads to greater attrition from Engineering in the short-term, while also inducing greater switching of majors (program of study) and enrollment into more specialized courses among those who remain in Engineering. Years later, post-graduation, the net effect of the earlier exposure is to increase retention in Engineering (i.e., in technical occupations or Engineering graduate school) by 4%, with the effect concentrated on the highest-quality students. Results are consistent with early exposure generating useful information about the labor market, allowing individuals to productively redirect educational investments before they are fully sunk.

High-Capacity Donors' Preferences for Charitable Giving
Mackenzie Alston et al.
NBER Working Paper, November 2018


How can charities solicit high-capacity donors to provide the funds for matching grants and leadership gifts? In conjunction with one of Texas A&M University’s fundraising organizations, we conducted a field experiment to study whether high-income donors respond to non-personal solicitations, as well as the effect of allowing for directed giving on high-income donors and their willingness to direct their donations towards overhead costs. We found that high-income donors are not responsive to letters or e-mails. The option to direct giving had no effect on the probability of donating or the amount donated. Our results suggest that motivating high-income donors requires more personal communication.

Better Outcomes Without Increased Costs? Effects of Georgia’s University System Consolidations
Lauren Russell
Economics of Education Review, February 2019, Pages 122-135


Declining state appropriations for higher education have prompted consolidations within numerous public university systems. Using administrative data from the University System of Georgia, I investigate the effects of recent consolidations on educational quality and efficiency. Comparing cohorts matriculating after consolidations to similar cohorts at non-consolidated institutions reveals that consolidation increases retention rates and the fraction of students graduating on-time with four-year degrees. Spending data and conversations with USG administrators suggest that increased spending on academic support (advising), made possible by economies of scale in student services, are likely responsible for the gains.

Brief teacher training improves student behavior and student–teacher relationships in middle school
Mylien Duong et al.
School Psychology Quarterly, forthcoming


Despite research demonstrating the importance of student–teacher relationships for student functioning, little is known about strategies to enhance such relationships, particularly in secondary school. The current study examined effects of a professional development for middle school teachers on the Establish-Maintain-Restore (EMR) approach. EMR aims to enhance teachers’ skills in cultivating relationships with students and involves brief training (3 hr) and ongoing implementation supports. In a randomized controlled trial, 20 teachers and 190 students were assigned to EMR or control. Observers rated academically engaged time and disruptive behavior, and teachers reported on relationship quality. Multilevel models showed that EMR resulted in significant improvements in student–teacher relationships (Hedge’s g = .61, 95% CI [0.21, 1.02]), academically engaged time (g = .81, 95% CI [0.01, 1.63]), and disruptive behavior (g = 1.07, 95% CI [0.01, 2.16]). Results indicate potential promise for EMR.

Making it right? Social norms, handwriting and human capital
Raphael Guber
Labour Economics, January 2019, Pages 44-57


Previous literature has found that, due to innate cognitive deficits, left-handers obtain less human capital and lower wages than right-handers. In this paper, I study the associations of forced right-hand writing of left-handed children (“switching”) with later life outcomes. Using rich data from the German SOEP, I am able to distinguish between switched and non-switched left-handers. I find that switched left-handers perform equally well or even better in the labor market than right-handers. Only non-switched left-handers exhibit the deficits of left-handers found in earlier studies. I apply Gelbach’s (2016) conditional decomposition to show that the observed differences in outcomes occur due to differential human capital accumulation, rather than cognitive or non-cognitive skills.

Learning a Second Language by Playing a Game
Kelsey James & Richard Mayer
Applied Cognitive Psychology, forthcoming


Game‐like educational apps are intended to boost learner motivation leading to better learning outcomes. To test this idea about the value of gamification, college students (n = 64) learned Italian by playing the online language learning game, Duolingo at home for seven sessions, or learned the same material through watching an online slideshow for seven sessions. Although the groups did not differ significantly on achievement posttests, the Duolingo group rated their learning experience as significantly more enjoyable (d = 0.77), more appealing (d = 1.17), and less difficult (d = 0.51), and was significantly more willing to continue with similar learning experiences (d = 1.39). Overall, these results point to the motivational and affective benefits of Duolingo as a promising alternative to more traditional methods for students who may require additional motivation not to disengage from the material.

The Effects of Youth Transition Programs on Labor Market Outcomes of Youth with Disabilities
David Dean et al.
Economics of Education Review, February 2019, Pages 68-88


The process of ”transitioning” to adulthood for youth with disabilities has long been recognized to be an important but understudied public policy concern. This paper evaluates the labor market effects of Virginia’s school-to-work vocational evaluation program, PERT. Using a unique panel data set containing more than a decade of labor market and service information, we provide the first-ever assessment of the long-term employment impacts of a transitioning program for youth with disabilities. Overall, the estimated effects are substantial: PERT has an estimated median quarterly rate of return of nearly 30%.

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