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How Cost Impacts College Applications

college_largeA 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.