The Power of Certainty: Experimental Evidence on the Effective Design of Free Tuition Policies (with Susan Dynarski, Katherine Michelmore, Stephanie Owen, Shwetha Raghuraman)

Proposed “free college” policies vary widely in design. The simplest set tuition to zero for everyone. More targeted approaches limit free tuition to those who demonstrate need through an application process. We experimentally test the effects of these two models on the schooling decisions of low-income students. An unconditional free tuition offer from a large public university substantially increases application and enrollment rates. A free tuition offer contingent on proof of need has a much smaller effect on application and none on enrollment. These results are consistent with students placing a high value on financial certainty when making schooling decisions.

Following in Their Footsteps or Avoiding Their Mistakes? The Role of Older Siblings in Shaping College Decision Making

Students rely on their informal social networks when making decisions about their postsecondary education, a decision that has profound impacts on future economic, demographic, and social outcomes. Inequality in the resources that students use is a documented contributor to economic stratification in educational attainment. However, research has focused on the role of parents, or peers, with limited attention paid to siblings as a unique resource for students in their postsecondary decisions. Using longitudinal qualitative interviews with 36 high-achieving high school seniors from low-income families, I explore the unique role that older siblings play in shaping the postsecondary decision making of their younger siblings: in what ways do older siblings support the decision-making process and what might explain heterogeneity in the effect that siblings have on their younger siblings’ pathways. The support provided by siblings is characterized by informational relevance, that is, the information comes from a long-term and trusting relationship, and is recent and personalized to the students’ circumstances. I also explore heterogeneity in the relationship between siblings and student postsecondary outcomes. (Draft available upon request.)

Postsecondary Decision Making Study (with Stefanie DeLuca)

There are well-documented and growing gaps in college attendance and completion rates by income. Low-income students are less likely to go to college and often attend less selective institutions than their qualifications would allow, diminishing their educational attainment and long-term earnings, while increasing debt. As a policy response, colleges and universities have tried to increase economic diversity, and several interventions have been promising. We implemented a large-scale, longitudinal qualitative study within a randomized, controlled trial (the HAIL Scholarship Study) to understand student decision making, and to explain the mechanisms that make the HAIL Scholarship intervention so successful.

The Effects of Federal Financial Aid Policy (with Fabian Pfeffer)

The Higher Education Act (HEA) is the central federal legislation regulating the financing of higher education and student financial aid. The HEA reauthorization of 1992 introduced pronounced shifts in student financial aid. We take advantage of this policy change to identify the heterogeneous impact of federal financial aid on not just the short-term college outcomes of students, such as college access and graduation, but also on longer-term and broader outcomes, including their later economic well-being and demographic transitions.

This paper employs quasi-experimental methods, including difference-in-differences, using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

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