Topic: Education - Postsecondary

with Albert Yoon.

Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 21(2).
Read the pre-publication version.

Since their inception in 1989, the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings have influenced how schools, students, and the legal profession itself think about legal education. In the Fall of 2022, however, several of the most selective law schools formally withdrew from the annual rankings. In so doing, these schools laid bare longstanding criticisms of the rankings’ questionable criteria and opaque methodology. While the long-term effect of this boycott remains to be seen, school rankings are likely here to stay. In this Article we design a more informative approach to rankings, based on actual decisions students make. Using individual level data provided by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), we analyze the universe of applicants to U.S. law schools for the period 1988 through 2017. In so doing, we are the first to create a revealed preference ranking based solely on where applicants matriculate given offers of admission. Our approach relies neither on potentially faulty data collection from schools nor arbitrary decisions about which factors to emphasize in rankings, thereby minimizing the scope for manipulation. It also allows us to quantify the magnitude of differences in preferences among schools and to test their statistical significance. Matriculants reveal a strong preference for a handful of the most selective schools; outside of the top tier, however, matriculants do not appear to draw meaningful distinctions between schools ranked adjacently or even near to each other. While existing school rankings sow more confusion than clarity, our analysis provides a rigorous and transparent alternative, and a blueprint for redesigning school rankings.

with Elizabeth Linos and Vikash Reddy.

Behavioural Public Policy 8(3)
Read the pre-publication version or policy brief (with Samantha Fu and Elizabeth Linos).

As US college costs continue to rise, governments and institutions have quadrupled financial aid. Yet, the administrative process of receiving financial aid remains complex, raising costs for families and deterring students from enrolling. In two large-scale field experiments (N = 265,570), we test the impact of nudging high-school seniors in California to register for state scholarships. We find that simplifying communication and affirming belonging each significantly increase registrations, by 9% and 11%, respectively. Yet, these nudges do not impact the final step of the financial aid process – receiving the scholarship. In contrast, a simplified letter that affirms belonging while also making comparable cost calculations more salient significantly impacts college choice, increasing enrollment in the lowest net cost option by 10.4%. Our findings suggest that different nudges are likely to address different types of administrative burdens, and their combination may be the most effective way to shift educational outcomes.

with Eli Ben-Michael and Avi Feller.

Annals of Applied Statistics 17 (4).
Read the arXiv version, journal page, or supplementary materials.

In a pilot program during the 2016–17 admissions cycle, the University of California, Berkeley invited many applicants for freshman admission to submit letters of recommendation. This proved controversial within the university, with concerns that this change would further disadvantage applicants from disadvantaged groups. To inform this debate, we use this pilot as the basis for an observational study of the impact of submitting letters of recommendation on subsequent admission, with the goal of estimating how impacts vary across predefined subgroups. Understanding this variation is challenging in an observational setting because estimated impacts reflect both actual treatment effect variation and differences in covariate balance across groups. To address this, we develop balancing weights that directly optimize for “local balance” within subgroups while maintaining global covariate balance between treated and control units. Applying this approach to the UC Berkeley pilot study yields excellent local and global balance, unlike more traditional weighting methods, which fail to balance covariates within subgroups. We find that the impact of letters of recommendation increases with applicant strength. However, we find little average difference for applicants from disadvantaged groups, although this result is more mixed. In the end we conclude that soliciting letters of recommendation from a broader pool of applicants would not meaningfully change the composition of admitted undergraduates

with Sandra E. Black and Jeffrey T. Denning.

American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 15(1).
Read the pre-publication version, journal page, or online appendix. Access the replication package.

We use the introduction of the Texas Top Ten Percent rule to estimate the effect of access to a selective college on graduation and earnings outcomes for two groups of students. For highly ranked students at more disadvantaged high schools, who gained access under the policy, college enrollment and graduation increased. Less highly ranked students at more advantaged schools, who tended to lose access, shifted toward less-selective colleges under the policy, but did not see declines in overall college enrollment, graduation, or earnings. The policy thus benefited students targeted for admission without evidence of adverse effects on displaced students.

Economics of Education Review 89.
Read the pre-publication version or the replication programs.

A subset of undergraduate applicants to the University of California, Berkeley were invited to submit letters of recommendation as part of their applications. I use scraped text of the submitted letters, natural language processing tools, and a within-subject experimental design wherein applications were read in parallel with and without their letters to understand the role that this qualitative information plays in admissions. I show that letters written on behalf of underrepresented applicants were modestly distinctive. I also construct an index of letter strength, measuring the predicted impact of the letter on the student’s application score. I show that underrepresented applicants tend to get weaker letters, but that readers pay less attention to letter strength for underrepresented students. Overall, the inclusion of letters modestly improved application outcomes for the average underrepresented student.

Journal of Labor Economics 37(S1).
Read the pre-publication version, journal page, appendix, policy brief, or replication archive.

Intergenerational income transmission varies across commuting zones (CZs). I investigate whether children’s educational outcomes help to explain this variation. Differences among CZs in the relationship between parental income and children’s human capital explain only one-ninth of the variation in income transmission. A similar share is explained by differences in the return to human capital. One-third reflects earnings differences not mediated by human capital, and 40% reflects differences in marriage patterns. Intergenerational mobility appears to reflect job networks and the structure of local labor and marriage markets more than it does the education system.

with Cecilia Rouse

Journal of Public Economics 95(1-2).
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In the early 2000s, a highly selective university introduced a “no-loans” policy under which the loan component of financial aid awards was replaced with grants. We use this natural experiment to identify the causal effect of student debt on employment outcomes. In the standard life-cycle model, young people make optimal educational investment decisions if they are able to finance these investments by borrowing against future earnings; the presence of debt has only income effects on investment decisions. We find that debt causes graduates to choose substantially higher-salary jobs and reduces the probability that students choose low-paid “public interest” jobs. We also find some evidence that debt affects students’ academic decisions during college. Our estimates suggest that recent college graduates are not life-cycle agents. Two potential explanations are that young workers are credit constrained or that they are averse to holding debt. We find suggestive evidence that debt reduces students’ donations to the institution in the years after they graduate and increases the likelihood that a graduate will default on a pledge made during her senior year; we argue this result is more likely consistent with credit constraints than with debt aversion.

with Melissa Clark and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

Economics of Education Review 28(3).
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Data from college admissions tests can provide a valuable measure of student achievement, but the non-representativeness of test-takers is an important concern. We examine selectivity bias in both state-level and school-level SAT and ACT averages. The degree of selectivity may differ importantly across and within schools, and across and within states. To identify within-state selectivity, we use a control function approach that conditions on scores from a representative test. Estimates indicate strong selectivity of test-takers in “ACT states,” where most college-bound students take the ACT, and much less selectivity in SAT states. To identify within- and between-school selectivity, we take advantage of a policy reform in Illinois that made taking the ACT a graduation requirement. Estimates based on this policy change indicate substantial positive selection into test participation both across and within schools. Despite this, school-level averages of observed scores are extremely highly correlated with average latent scores, as across-school variation in sample selectivity is small relative to the underlying signal. As a result, in most contexts the use of observed school mean test scores in place of latent means understates the degree of between-school variation in achievement but is otherwise unlikely to lead to misleading conclusions.

with Albert Yoon

An important criticism of race-based higher education admission preferences is that they may hurt minority students who attend more selective schools than they would in the absence of such preferences. We categorize the non-experimental research designs available for the study of so-called “mismatch” effects and evaluate the likely biases in each. We select two comparisons and use them to examine mismatch effects in law school. We find no evidence of mismatch effects on any students’ employment outcomes or on the graduation or bar passage rates of black students with moderate or strong entering credentials. What evidence there is for mismatch is concentrated among lessqualified black students who typically attend second- or third-tier schools. Many of these students would not have been admitted to any law school without preferences, however, and the resulting sample selection prevents strong conclusions.