Archives for college



The Long-Term Effects of Birth Control

A new working paper (PDF; abstract) by Martha J. Bailey, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, analyzes the effects of increased access to birth control in the 1960s and 1970s:

This paper assembles new evidence on some of the longer-term consequences of U.S. family planning policies, defined in this paper as those increasing legal or financial access to modern contraceptives. The analysis leverages two large policy changes that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s: first, the interaction of the birth control pill’s introduction with Comstock-era restrictions on the sale of contraceptives and the repeal of these laws after Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965; and second, the expansion of federal funding for local family planning programs from 1964 to 1973. Building on previous research that demonstrates both policies’ effects on fertility rates, I find suggestive evidence that individuals’ access to contraceptives increased their children’s college completion, labor force participation, wages, and family incomes decades later.



How Cost Impacts College Applications

A new NBER paper (abstract; PDF) by Amanda Pallais looks at how small fees impact the application behavior and outcomes of low-income students. Using data from the ACT, she found that an increase in the number of free score reports that students were permitted to send to colleges resulted in students sending their scores to a wider range of colleges, with low-income students attending more selective colleges. These outcomes were surprising because the non-free score reports were a mere $6. The abstract:

This paper estimates the sensitivity of students’ college application decisions to a small change in the cost of sending standardized test scores to colleges. Using confidential ACT micro data, I find that when the ACT increased from three to four the number of free score reports that ACT-takers could send, the fraction of test-takers sending four reports rose substantially while the fraction sending three fell by an offsetting amount. Students simultaneously sent their scores to a wider range of colleges. Using micro data from the American Freshman Survey, two identification strategies show that ACT-takers sent more college applications and low-income ACT-takers attended more selective colleges after the cost change. The first strategy compares ACT-takers before and after the cost change, controlling for time trends and covariates, and the second estimates difference-in-difference regressions using SAT-takers as a control group. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that by inducing low-income students to attend more selective colleges, the policy change significantly increased their expected earnings. Because the cost of sending an additional (non-free) ACT score was merely $6 throughout, this sizable behavioral change is surprising and suggests that students may use simple heuristics in making their application decisions. In such a setting, small policy perturbations can have large effects on welfare.



A New Tool for Estimating College Costs

Last year, we did a podcast on college tuition which discussed the growing gap between a college’s “sticker price” and the actual tuition paid by low- and middle-income working families.  In order to demystify this gap — and help low-income families understand that many expensive private colleges are actually well within their reach — Wellesley College has just released a “Quick College Cost Estimator” calculator.

“The conversation that takes place around college costs is largely misguided,” Phillip B. Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley, told David Leonhardt of the Times. “People focus only on the sticker price. The sticker price is a meaningful statistic for roughly 40 percent of our students. The majority of our students are receiving financial aid, and for them the sticker price is an irrelevant number.”  While The College Board and Harvard have similar calculators, Leonhardt likes the simplicity of Wellesley’s version. “The larger point is that Wellesley’s calculator is a significant step in the growing effort to spread accurate information about college costs,” writes Leonhardt.  “As Mr. Levine says, the widespread misunderstanding of tuition ‘clos



College Makes You Healthy

At the core of the debate over the value of college is a collage of evidence showing that it produces better lifetime outcomes not just in income but in health and happiness. How does this happen? And how can we be sure that we aren’t just seeing a selection bias — i.e., that people who go to college would have been richer, healthier, and happier in any case?

Here’s a new working paper (abstract; PDF), by Kasey Buckles, Andreas Hagemann, Ofer Malamud, Melinda Morrill, and Abigail Wozniak which purports to show the long-term health effects of a college education. Granted, their data stretches back to the Vietnam War draft (a good instrumental variable, which other researchers have used) but their findings are significant nonetheless.

We exploit exogenous variation in college completion induced by draft-avoidance behavior during the Vietnam War to examine the impact of college completion on adult mortality.  Our preferred estimates imply that increasing college completion rates from the level of the state with the lowest induced rate to the highest would decrease
cumulative mortality by 28 percent relative to the mean.  Most of the reduction in mortality is from deaths due to cancer and heart disease.  We also explore potential mechanisms, including differential earnings, health insurance, and health behaviors, using data from the Census, ACS, and NHIS.

Differential earnings and health insurance are of course related to the income boost that college graduates receive. It is the “health behaviors” that are learned/adopted by college graduates that are especially interesting.



The Economics of Higher Education, Part 4: Worldwide Returns on College

We’ve discussed before — in blog posts and a podcast — the value of a college degree. Writing for the New York Times Economix blog, Catherine Rampell points out that college degrees are particularly valuable in the U.S. “According to a report released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, across the developed world the average person who has graduated from college (either two-year or four-year) and has any earnings makes about 57 percent more than a counterpart with no more than a high school education,” writes Rampell. “In the United States, the comparable earnings premium is 77 percent.”  

Despite the value of a college degree in the U.S., college graduation rates in the U.S. are increasing at a much slower pace than in other rich countries.  And, as Rampell points out, it’s not just individuals in the U.S. that benefit from a college degree: “[T]he average return to taxpayers [of tertiary education for the average man] is $230,722 in the United States, versus less than half that, $104,737, across the developed world.” 

For more on “The Economics of Higher Education,” see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Also: Oregon is thinking about letting students pay no college tuition, instead pledging a share of their future earnings. Lest you think this is straight out of Portlandia (like this is), know that Australia runs a similar college-tuition program



The Economics of Higher Education, Part 3: Why Do Fewer Blacks Graduate?

The black-white education gap has been widely observed at many age levels. In a new working paper called “Race and College Success” (abstract; PDF), Peter Arcidiacono and Cory Koedel examine why blacks who are admitted to college are so much less likely than whites to graduate:

Conditional on enrollment, African American students are substantially less likely to graduate from 4-year public universities than white students.*  Using administrative micro data from Missouri, we decompose the graduation gap between African Americans and whites into four factors:  (1) racial differences in how students sort to universities, (2) racial differences in how students sort to initial majors, (3) racial differences in school quality prior to entry, and (4) racial differences in other observed pre-entry skills.  Pre-entry skills explain 65 and 86 percent of the gap for women and men respectively.  A small role is found for differential sorting into college, particularly for women, and this is driven by African Americans being disproportionately represented at urban schools and the schools at the very bottom of the quality distribution.

* “At around 40 percent, six-year graduation rates for African Americans are over twenty percentage points lower than for whites (DeAngelo et al., 2011, National Center for Education Statistics, 2012).”



The Economics of Higher Education, Part 2: Different Major, Different Tuition

It has become increasingly common for colleges and universities to charge different tuition for different undergraduate majors. Do those prices actually influence degree production? In a new working paper (abstract; PDF), Kevin M. Stange argues that the answer is yes:

In the face of declining state support, many universities have introduced differential pricing by undergraduate program as an alternative to across-the-board tuition increases.  This practice aligns price more closely with instructional costs and students’ ability to pay post-graduation.  Exploiting the staggered adoption of these policies across universities, this paper finds that differential pricing does alter the allocation of students to majors, though heterogeneity across fields may suggest a greater supply response in particularly oversubscribed fields such as nursing. There is some evidence that student groups already underrepresented in certain fields are particularly affected by the new pricing policies.  Price does appear to be a policy lever through which state governments can alter the field composition of the workforce they are training with the public higher education system.



The Economics of Higher Education, Part 1: Science Is Hard

If you are the sort of person who worries that the U.S. is not producing enough college graduates with science degrees, it’s worth wondering exactly why that is. In a new working paper, Ralph Stinebrickner and Todd R. Stinebrickner offer a compelling answer: science is hard. Here’s the abstract (sorry, full paper seems to be gated).

Taking advantage of unique longitudinal data, we provide the first characterization of what college students believe at the time of entrance about their final major, relate these beliefs to actual major outcomes, and, provide an understanding of why students hold the initial beliefs about majors that they do. The data collection and analysis are based directly on a conceptual model in which a student’s final major is best viewed as the end result of a learning process.  We find that students enter school quite optimistic/interested about obtaining a science degree, but that relatively few students end up graduating with a science degree.  The substantial overoptimism about completing a degree in science can be attributed largely to students beginning school with misperceptions about their ability to perform well academically in science.

Do we file this item under “overconfidence” or “good gatekeeping”?