A Small Nudge For College Enrollment?

A new working paper by George Bulman, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate and former Teach for America teacher, looks at whether having an in-school SAT or ACT testing center affects test-taking and college enrollment:

Because the additional cost of taking the exam at a neighboring high school is very small, standard economic models suggest that there should be no effect. To test if this is true, I construct a new data set of every SAT and ACT test center in the United States and exploit within-school variation generated by the opening of new centers over time. Confidential student testing records linked to administrative college enrollment records reveal that students at high schools where new centers open are 8.2 percent more likely to take an exam, with the largest effects at low income schools. Using new centers as an instrumental variable, I demonstrate that 44.3 percent of these marginal test takers subsequently attend a four-year college and complete 5.8 semesters (typical of all matriculates). I then develop a method for inferring the latent distribution of student ability and show that the students induced to matriculate are primarily from the top tercile of the ability distribution. The large response of students to test centers is likely due to factors such as increased awareness about exam dates and an implicit recommendation by the school to take the exam. I replicate this empirical approach to evaluate district policies that compel nearly all students to take a college assessment. While this produces a ten-fold increase in SAT taking relative to new test centers, there are only slightly larger gains in college matriculation. Identifying if, and which students induced to take an exam matriculate and progress through college is potentially important given the magnitude of state and federal spending dedicated to promoting college attendance and the recent proliferation of policies to promote college enrollment through college assessments.

Bulman concludes that “the decision to take a college assessment is sensitive to small barriers for a surprisingly large fraction of students, and that students frequently change their college enrollment decision as a result.” (HT: Nick Bloom).

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