Millions of Degrees

Kevin Lewis

October 19, 2020

State Investment in Higher Education: Effects on Human Capital Formation, Student Debt, and Long-term Financial Outcomes of Students
Rajashri Chakrabarti, Nicole Gorton & Michael Lovenheim
NBER Working Paper, October 2020


Most public colleges and universities rely heavily on state financial support. As state budgets have tightened in recent decades, appropriations for higher education have declined substantially. Despite concerns expressed by policymakers and scholars that the declines in state support have reduced the return to education investment for public sector students, little evidence exists that can identify the causal effect of these funds on long-run outcomes. We present the first such analysis in the literature using new data that leverages the merger of two rich datasets: consumer credit records from the New York Fed's Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) sourced from Equifax and administrative college enrollment and attainment data from the National Student Clearinghouse. We overcome identification concerns related to the endogeneity of state appropriation variation using an instrument that interacts the baseline share of total revenue that comes from state appropriations at each public institution with yearly variation in state-level appropriations. Our analysis is conducted separately for two-year and four-year students, and we analyze individuals into their mid-30s. For four-year students, we find that state appropriation increases lead to substantially lower student debt originations. They also react to appropriation increases by shortening their time to degree, but we find little effect on other outcomes. In the two-year sector, state appropriation increases lead to more collegiate and post-collegiate educational attainment, more educational debt consistent with the increased educational attainment, but lower likelihood of delinquency and default. State support also leads to more car and home ownership with lower adverse debt outcomes, and these students experience substantial increases in their credit score and in the affluence of the neighborhood in which they live. Examining mechanisms, we find state appropriations are passed on to students in the form of lower tuition in the four-year sector with no institutional spending response. For community colleges, we find evidence of both price and quality mechanisms, the latter captured in higher educational resources in key spending categories. These results are consistent with the different pattern of effects we document in the four-year and two-year sectors. Our results underscore the importance of state support for higher education in driving student debt outcomes and the long-run returns to postsecondary investments students experience.

Just or Unjust? How Ideological Beliefs Shape Street‐level Bureaucrats’ Perceptions of Administrative Burden
Elizabeth Bell et al.
Public Administration Review, forthcoming


Existing research finds that increases in administrative burden reduce client access, political efficacy, and equity. However, extant literature has yet to investigate how administrative burden policies are interpreted by street‐level bureaucrats (SLBs), whose values and beliefs structure uses of discretion and client experiences of programs. In this article, we utilize quantitative and qualitative data to examine SLBs’ policy preferences regarding administrative burden in Oklahoma's Promise - a means‐tested college access program. Our findings demonstrate that SLBs in our sample interpret administrative burden policies through the lens of political ideology. Conservative SLBs express significantly more support for administrative burden policies, arguing that these policies prevent fraud and demonstrate client deservingness. In contrast, predominantly liberal SLBs justify their opposition to administrative burden by arguing that the requirements undermine social equity. Together, our findings reveal that SLBs’ political ideology shapes interpretations of administrative burden and perceptions of client deservingness in Oklahoma's Promise.             

Heavy-Contact Sport Participation and Early Adolescent Delinquency
David Maume & Michael Parrish
Social Currents, forthcoming


Sports is one of the most popular youth activities, yet a consensus has not been reached as to whether playing sports facilitates or deters youths’ delinquency. This study uses longitudinal data on youths ages 12-15 to test the association between participation in noncontact (tennis, golf, track and field, swimming, volleyball), semi-contact (soccer, basketball, baseball/softball) and heavy contact (football, hockey, wrestling, lacrosse) sports, and juvenile delinquency. In models accounting for potential selection effects and a full array of confounding influences, playing semi- and noncontact sports is largely unrelated to delinquency, whereas greater participation in heavy-contact sports is uniquely associated with increased commission of violent and property crimes in early adolescence. The theoretical and policy implications of these finding are briefly discussed.

The Negative Effect of Smartphone Use on Academic Performance May Be Overestimated: Evidence From a 2-Year Panel Study
Andreas Bjerre-Nielsen et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming


In this study, we monitored 470 university students’ smartphone usage continuously over 2 years to assess the relationship between in-class smartphone use and academic performance. We used a novel data set in which smartphone use and grades were recorded across multiple courses, allowing us to examine this relationship at the student level and the student-in-course level. In accordance with the existing literature, our results showed that students’ in-class smartphone use was negatively associated with their grades, even when we controlled for a broad range of observed student characteristics. However, the magnitude of the association decreased substantially in a fixed-effects model, which leveraged the panel structure of the data to control for all stable student and course characteristics, including those not observed by researchers. This suggests that the size of the effect of smartphone usage on academic performance has been overestimated in studies that controlled for only observed student characteristics.

The Word on the Street or the Number from the State? Government-Provided Information and Americans’ Opinions of Schools
Jon Valant & Daniel Newark
Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, October 2020, Pages 674-692


Public institutions seeking to facilitate effective decision making by boundedly rational constituents often must determine what information to provide and in what form to provide it. Ideally, this determination would reflect an understanding of how different kinds, forms, and sources of information are processed by constituents and influence constituents’ beliefs. However, research on this topic - especially in the context of educational institutions, and with a focus on official numerical information versus electronic word of mouth - has been minimal. Considering the case of state governments wishing to inform citizens about their schools, we examine how parents and the US public evaluate schools after receiving two increasingly abundant kinds of school quality information: numerical government ratings and online parent comments. Using an online survey experiment with a nationally representative sample, we find that perceptions of school quality are heavily influenced by parent comments even when these comments appear alongside official ratings. By contrast, the effects of official numerical ratings appear modest. Additional findings suggest that the comments’ influence results from preferences for the information’s source (parents over government) and style (narrative over numerical), and that nonprofit organizations are more trusted messengers of performance information than state governments. These results advance our theoretical understanding of the effects of different kinds of information on belief, and we conclude the article by discussing their implications for how public institutions disseminate information to their constituents.

Marginal Effects of Merit Aid for Low-Income Students
Joshua Angrist, David Autor & Amanda Pallais
NBER Working Paper, September 2020


Financial aid from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (STBF) provides exceptionally generous support to a college population similar to that served by a host of state aid programs. In conjunction with STBF, we randomly assigned aid awards to thousands of Nebraska high school graduates from low-income, minority, and first-generation college households. Randomly- assigned STBF awards boost bachelor's (BA) degree completion for students targeting four-year schools by about 8 points. Degree gains are concentrated among four-year applicants who would otherwise have been unlikely to pursue a four-year program. Degree effects are mediated by award-induced increases in credits earned towards a BA in the first year of college. The extent of initial four-year college engagement explains heterogeneous effects by target campus and across covariate subgroups. Most program spending is a transfer, reducing student debt without affecting degree attainment. Award-induced marginal spending is modest. The projected lifetime earnings impact of awards exceeds marginal educational spending for all of the subgroups examined in the study. Projected earnings gains exceed funder costs for low-income, non-white, urban, and first-generation students, and for students with relatively weak academic preparation.

More Than Shortages: The Unequal Distribution of Substitute Teaching
Jing Liu, Susanna Loeb & Ying Shi
Education Finance and Policy, forthcoming


Classroom teachers in the US are absent on average approximately six percent of a school year. Despite the prevalence of teacher absences, surprisingly little research has assessed the key source of replacement instruction: substitute teachers. Using detailed administrative and survey data from a large urban school district, we document the prevalence, predictors, and distribution of substitute coverage across schools. Less advantaged schools systematically exhibit lower rates of substitute coverage compared with peer institutions. Observed school, teacher, and absence characteristics account for only part of this school variation. In contrast, substitute teachers' preferences for specific schools, mainly driven by student behavior and support from teachers and school administrators, explain a sizable share of the unequal distribution of coverage rates above and beyond standard measures in administrative data.

A Social-Belonging Intervention Benefits Higher Weight Students’ Weight Stability and Academic Achievement
Christine Logel et al.
Social Psychological and Personality Science, forthcoming


Psychological interventions can narrow college achievement gaps between students from nonstigmatized and stigmatized groups. However, no intervention we know of has investigated effects for one highly stigmatized group: people of higher bodyweights. We analyzed data from a prematriculation social-belonging intervention trial at 22 colleges, which conveyed that adversity in the college transition is normative, temporary, and nondiagnostic of lack of belonging. Nine months postintervention, higher weight participants in a standard belonging treatment had higher first-year grade point averages (GPAs) than controls and maintained more stable weights, an indicator of physical well-being. Effects of a belonging treatment customized to specific colleges were directionally similar but nonsignificant. Exploratory analyses revealed that effects did not differ by race and that weight effects were driven by women. Together, results show that higher weight students contend with belonging concerns that contribute to a weight gap in GPA, but belonging interventions can raise GPA and promote healthy weight stability.

Introducing CogX: A New Preschool Education Program Combining Parent and Child Interventions
Roland Fryer et al.
NBER Working Paper, October 2020


We present the results of a novel early childhood intervention in which disadvantaged 3-4-year-old children were randomized to receive a new preschool and parent education program focused on cognitive and non-cognitive skills (CogX) or to a control group that did not receive preschool education. In addition to a typical academic year (9 month) program, we also evaluated a shortened summer version of the program (2 months) in which children were treated immediately prior to the start of Kindergarten. Both programs, including the shortened version, significantly improved cognitive test scores by about one quarter of a standard deviation relative to the control group at the end of the year. The shortened version of the program was equally as effective as the academic- year program because most of the gains in the academic-year program occurred within the first few months.

Promoting resilience: A preschool intervention enhances the adolescent adjustment of children exposed to early adversity
Michael Sanders et al.
School Psychology, September 2020, Pages 285-298


Two hundred ninety-four children from low-income families (58% White, 17% Latinx, 25% Black; 54% girls; Mage = 4.49 years old at study entry) were recruited from Head Start classrooms to participate in a randomized-controlled trial of the project Research-based, Developmentally Informed (REDI) preschool intervention and then followed longitudinally for 10 years through 9th grade. At study entry, parents reported on their children’s exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Youth reported on their feelings of social-emotional distress and school bonding after making the transition into middle school (7th grade) and high school (9th grade). Multilevel latent profile analyses revealed three profiles of adolescent distress and school bonding. Increased rates of ACEs in early childhood predicted membership in adolescent profiles characterized by heightened social-emotional distress and reduced levels of school bonding. The REDI intervention that focused on promoting early social-emotional and language skills in preschool moderated the impact of early ACEs on adolescent adjustment and promoted youth resilience, significantly buffering children from the negative impact of early ACEs on their levels of social-emotional distress and school bonding.

The Effect of Classmates’ Maternal College Attainment on Volunteering in Young Adulthood
Jinho Kim
Social Science Quarterly, forthcoming

Methods: Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), I employ a quasi‐experimental research design that exploits variation in student composition across grade cohorts within schools.

Results: This study finds that the proportion of classmates with college‐educated mothers has a positive impact on the likelihood of students’ engagement in volunteering in young adulthood. Exposure to a higher proportion of classmates with college‐educated mothers increases adolescents’ future volunteering, in part, by directly transmitting civic values and providing civic opportunities and indirectly increasing “dominant status” attainment in young adulthood.

Can a Domain‐General Spatial Intervention Facilitate Children’s Science Learning? A Lesson From Astronomy
Corinne Bower & Lynn Liben
Child Development, forthcoming


Correlational studies link spatial‐test scores and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics achievement. Here we asked whether children’s understanding of astronomical phenomena would benefit from a prior intervention targeting a core component of children’s projective spatial concepts - understanding that viewers’ visual experiences are affected by vantage point. Children (8-9 years; N = 66) received outdoor and indoor experiences that did (Experimental) or did not (Control) focus on how scene appearance is affected by viewers' positions and movements. All then received an astronomy lesson about celestial motions (e.g., Sun apparent motion). Experimental‐group children scored higher on immediate and 1‐week perspective‐taking tests and explained celestial phenomena more accurately than did control‐group children. Data demonstrate that general spatial training - divorced from specific science content - can aid children’s subsequent learning of scientific phenomena.

The Impact of No-Loan Program Participation on the Likelihood of Graduate School Enrollment Among Low-Income, First-Generation Students
Justin Ortagus & Dennis Kramer
Education Finance and Policy, forthcoming


Previous research shows that low-income and first-generation college students are less likely to obtain the benefits associated with attending graduate school. No-loan programs, which typically administer financial aid through institutional grants, are designed to improve access and success among students from low-income backgrounds, but we know very little about the influence of noloan programs after students enroll and eventually graduate from college. This study examines the impact of no-loan program participation on graduate school enrollment by leveraging a novel institutional dataset and employing regression discontinuity, difference-in-differences, and propensity score weighting approaches. Results indicate that no-loan program participation has a positive and relatively consistent impact on graduate school enrollment among low-income and first-generation students.


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