Learning the system

Kevin Lewis

November 18, 2019

Criminal records and college admissions: A modified experimental audit
Robert Stewart & Christopher Uggen
Criminology, forthcoming


In this article, we consider the effect of criminal records on college admissions. Nearly 72 percent of colleges require criminal history information during their application processes, which indicates that an applicant's criminal history could be a significant impediment to achieving the benefits associated with higher education. We conducted a modified experimental audit to learn whether and to what extent criminal records affect admissions decisions. Matched same‐race pairs of tester applications were sent to a national sample of nonelite 4‐year colleges, with both testers applying as either Black or White. Within each pair, one application signaled a prior low‐level felony conviction only when required by the application. Consistent with the findings of research on employment, we find the rejection rate for applicants with felony convictions was nearly 2.5 times the rate of our control testers. Relative to the large racial differences observed in previous studies of hiring decisions, we find smaller racial differences in admissions decisions. Nevertheless, Black applicants with criminal records were particularly penalized when disclosing a felony record at colleges with high campus crime rates. We address implications for reentry, racial progress, and the college “Ban the Box” movement. We suggest colleges consider narrowing the scope of such inquiries or removing the question altogether - particularly when it conflicts with the goals of these institutions, including reducing the underrepresentation of students of color.”

Peer Preferences, School Competition, and the Effects of Public School Choice
Levon Barseghyan, Damon Clark & Stephen Coate
American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, November 2019, Pages 124-158


This paper develops a new economic model of public school choice. The key innovation is to model competition between schools in an environment in which parents have peer preferences. The analysis yields three main findings. First, peer preferences dampen schools' incentives to exert effort in response to competitive pressure. Second, when peer preferences are sufficiently strong, choice can reduce social welfare. This is because choice is costly to exercise but aggregate peer quality is fixed. Third, given strong peer preferences, choice can reduce school quality in more affluent neighborhoods. We conclude that peer preferences weaken the case for choice.

The impact of money on science: Evidence from unexpected NCAA football outcomes
Haris Tabakovic & Thomas Wollmann
Journal of Public Economics, forthcoming


How productive are university research investments, and do the resulting pools of knowledge create valuable, downstream technology - or simply accumulate in the “ivory tower”? This paper uses unexpected NCAA athletic outcomes to vary research support to university faculty and estimate knowledge productivity. We find positive, significant effects of research expenditures on articles published and patents filed. Then, using data on university technology licensing income, we show that these investments produce large returns in real terms.

Government Expenditure on the Public Education System
Chao Fu, Shoya Ishimaru & John Kennan
NBER Working Paper, November 2019


We investigate equilibrium impacts of federal policies such as free-college proposals, taking into account that human capital production is cumulative and that state governments have resource constraints. In the model, a state government cares about household welfare and aggregate educational attainment. Realizing that household choices vary with its decisions, the government chooses income tax rates, per-student expenditure levels on public K-12 and college education, college tuition and the provision of other public goods, subject to its budget constraint. We estimate the model using data from the U.S. Using counterfactual simulations, we find that free-public-college policies, mandatory or subsidized, would decrease state expenditure on and hence the quality of public education. More students would obtain college degrees due to increased enrollment. Over 86% of all households would lose while about 60% of the lowest income quintile would gain from such policies.

Education Policy and Intergenerational Transfers in Equilibrium
Brant Abbott et al.
Journal of Political Economy, forthcoming


We examine the equilibrium effects of college financial aid policies building an overlapping-generations life cycle model with education, labor supply, and saving decisions. Cognitive and noncognitive skills of children depend on parental education and skills and affect education and labor market outcomes. Education is funded by parental transfers that supplement grants, loans, and student labor supply. Crowding out of parental transfers by government programs is sizable and cannot be ignored. The current system of federal aid improves long-run welfare by 6 percent. More generous ability-tested grants would increase welfare and dominate both an expansion of student loans and a labor tax cut.

High Bars or Behind Bars? The Effect of Graduation Requirements on Arrest Rates
Matthew Larsen
Education Finance and Policy, forthcoming


This paper investigates the effect of high school graduation requirements on arrest rates with a specific focus on the number of required courses and the use of exit exams. Identifying variation comes from state-by-cohort changes in the laws governing high school graduation requirements from 1980 to 2010. Combining these law changes with arrest rates of young adults from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), I find that the use of exit exams can reduce arrest rates by approximately 7%. While it is difficult to parse out the exact mechanisms additional exploration into heterogeneity by age and offense as well as examination of labor market outcomes suggest that these policies may have increased learning. Given the current debate around the use of exit exams this paper provides evidence of beneficial effects on non-academic outcomes. This paper also provides further evidence of the influence of education policy on crime.

Curriculum Reforms and Infant Health
Bahadir Dursun, Ozkan Eren & My Nguyen
Princeton Working Paper, January 2019


This paper examines the effects of high school curriculum reforms on infant health by exploiting sharp and staggered changes across states in core course requirements for graduation. Our results suggest that curriculum reforms significantly reduced the incidence of low birth weight and prematurity for black mothers. For white mothers, the estimated effects are small and generally insignificant. Improvements in maternal health behaviors and family income appear to explain a non-negligible fraction of the observed effects. Finally, we calculate a large social gain induced by favorable infant health outcomes. Several robustness checks and different placebo tests support our findings.

Targeted vs. General Education Investments: Evidence from Special Education and English Language Learners in Boston Charter Schools
Elizabeth Setren
Journal of Human Resources, forthcoming


Using novel variation in special education and English Language Learner classification from admissions lotteries, I find that students can achieve large academic gains without specialized services. Enrolling in a Boston charter school doubles the likelihood that students lose their special education or English Language Learner status, but exposes students to a high-performing general education program that includes high intensity tutoring, data driven instruction, and increased instructional time. The positive effects extend to college: charters nearly double the likelihood that English Language Learners enroll in four-year colleges and quadruple the likelihood that special education students graduate from two-year college. A multiple instrument strategy suggests that high quality general education practices drive the gains and finds no detrimental effect from lower classification rates. Findings highlight the potential for school quality investments to improve special education and ELL student outcomes.

Let Them Eat Lunch: The Impact of Universal Free Meals on Student Performance
Amy Ellen Schwartz & Michah Rothbart
Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, forthcoming


This paper investigates the impact of extending free school lunch to all students, regardless of income, on academic performance in New York City middle schools. Using a difference‐in‐differences design and unique longitudinal, student‐level data, we derive credibly causal estimates of the impacts of “Universal Free Meals” (UFM) on test scores in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics, and participation in school lunch. We find UFM increases academic performance by as much as 0.083 standard deviations in math and 0.059 in ELA for non‐poor students, with smaller, statistically significant effects of 0.032 and 0.027 standard deviations in math and ELA for poor students. Further, UFM increases participation in school lunch by roughly 11.0 percentage points for non‐poor students and 5.4 percentage points for poor students. We then investigate the academic effects of school lunch participation per se, using UFM as an instrumental variable. Results indicate that increases in school lunch participation improve academic performance for both poor and non‐poor students; an additional lunch every two weeks increases test scores by roughly 0.08 standard deviations in math and 0.07 standard deviations in ELA. Finally, we explore potential unintended consequences for student weight outcomes, finding no evidence that UFM increases the probability that students are obese or overweight. We also find no evidence of increases in average body mass index (BMI). Instead, we find some evidence that participation in school lunch improves weight outcomes for non‐poor students. Results are robust to an array of alternative specifications and assumptions about the sample.

Teacher Unionization and Student Academic Performance: Looking beyond Collective Bargaining
Eunice Han & Thomas Maloney
Labor Studies Journal, forthcoming


This paper investigates the relationship between teachers unions and students’ academic performance. We examine nationally representative data and use a more comprehensive measure of teacher unionization by identifying both districts with collective bargaining contracts and districts with meet-and-confer agreements. We find that teachers unions raise student test scores via both channels. This positive relationship is stronger for black students than for white students and for lower grade than upper grade levels.

Fear of a Black (and Poor) School: Race, Class, and School Safety Policy Preferences
Adam Dunbar et al.
Race and Justice, forthcoming


School security and punishment practices have changed throughout the United States since the 1990s. Yet we know little about public support for these practices nor how this support varies when considering different students. The current study uses an experimental approach to assess public preferences for school punishment and security practices and how public opinion relates to student body race and class, as well as attitudes about crime. Results indicate that participants prefer security measures for schools with more low-income students and mental health services for schools with more high-income students. We also find that participants with racialized views of crime, along with those who view crime as a growing problem and fear victimization, are more supportive of carceral disciplinary policies and less supportive of therapeutic policies. We conclude by considering how ostensibly race-neutral mechanisms, such as attitudes about poverty and crime, may contribute to racially disparate surveillance and punishment practices.

The Effects of Financial Aid Grant Offers on Postsecondary Educational Outcomes: New Experimental Evidence from the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars
Deven Carlson et al.
NBER Working Paper, November 2019


In this pre-registered study, we analyze the effects of need-based financial aid grant offers on the educational outcomes of low-income college students based on a large-scale randomized experiment (n=48,804). We find evidence that the grant offers increase two-year persistence by 1.7 percentage points among four-year college students. The estimated effect on six-year bachelor’s degree completion is of similar size - 1.5 percentage points - but is not statistically significant. Among two-year students, we find positive - but not statistically significant - effects on persistence and bachelor’s degree completion (1.2 and 0.5 percentage points, respectively). We find little evidence that effects vary by cohort, race, gender or the prior receipt of food stamps. However, further exploratory results do suggest that the offers reduce associate’s degree completion rates for two-year community college students by around 3 percentage points, with no statistically significant evidence of effects on technical college students. We also estimate that the effects of actually receiving grant money are very similar, though slightly greater than the effects of merely receiving a grant offer. Overall, our results show only very small effects of the need-based grant offers on college students’ trajectories towards degree completion.

Improving College Instruction Through Incentives
Sally Sadoff & Andy Brownback
Journal of Political Economy, forthcoming


Prior work demonstrates the importance of college instructor quality, but little is known about whether college instruction can be improved. In a field experiment, we examine the impact of performance-based incentives for community college instructors. We estimate that instructor incentives improve student exam scores by 0.16 - 0.2 standard deviations (SD), increase course grades by 0.1 SD, reduce course dropout by 17 percent, and increase credit accumulation by 18 percent. The effects are largest among part-time adjunct instructors. During the program, instructor incentives have large positive spillovers to students’ unincentivized courses, significantly increasing completion rates and grades in courses outside our study. One year after the program ends, instructor incentives increase transfer rates to four-year colleges by an estimated 22 - 28 percent, with no impact on two-year college degrees. To test for potential complementarities, we examine the impact of instructor incentives in conjunction with student incentives and find no evidence that the incentives are more effective in combination. Finally, we elicit contract preferences for the loss-framed incentives we offer. At baseline, instructors prefer gain-framed incentives. However, after experiencing loss-framed incentives, instructors significantly increase their preferences for them.

The Effect of Course Shutouts on Community College Students: Evidence from Waitlist Cutoffs
Silvia Robles, Max Gross & Robert Fairlie
NBER Working Paper, October 2019


One frequently cited yet understudied channel through which money matters for college students is course availability- colleges may respond to budgetary pressure by reducing course offerings. Open admissions policies, binding class size constraints, and heavy reliance on state funding may make this channel especially salient at community colleges, which enroll 47% of U.S. undergraduates in public colleges and 55% of underrepresented minority students. We use administrative course registration data from a large community college in California to test this mechanism. By exploiting discontinuities in course admissions created by waitlists, we find that students stuck on a waitlist and shut out of a course section were 25% more likely to take zero courses that term relative to a baseline of 10%. Shutouts also increased transfer rates to nearby, but potentially lower quality, two-year colleges. These results document that course availability- even through a relatively small friction- can interrupt and distort community college students’ educational trajectories.


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