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Advanced Placement Tests, Tuition Increases And The Power Of Lists

inthepapersEvery Monday, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit organization made up of some of North America’s most respected economists, releases its latest batch of working papers. The papers aren’t peer-reviewed, so their conclusions are preliminary (and occasionally flat-out wrong). But they offer an early peek into some of the research that will shape economic thinking in the years ahead. Here are a few of this week’s most interesting papers.

Title: “Giving College Credit Where it is Due: Advanced Placement Exam Scores and College Outcomes”

Authors: Jonathan Smith, Michael Hurwitz, Christopher Avery

What they found: Getting a passing grade on Advanced Placement exams makes students more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree on time.

Why it matters: College enrollment has risen steadily in recent decades, but graduation rates have been more or less stagnant. That has led many in higher education to focus more on college completion, not just college access. In this paper, the authors looked at whether students who earn college credit while in high school, via Advanced Placement courses, are more likely to graduate from college on time. The challenge, of course, is that people who score well on AP tests are presumably better students, so we would expect them to fare better in college. To control for that, the authors looked at the raw test results to identify students who scored just above and just below the threshold to earn college credit; such students likely have roughly the same academic ability, but only the better-scoring group got the benefit of the AP test. They found a significant effect: For every passing score, a student’s probability of completing a bachelor’s degree within four years increased by 1 to 2 percentage points. Moreover, success begets success: Students who passed an AP test in their junior year of high school took more exams on average in their senior year. Success on AP tests does not, however, seem to have much effect on whether students go to college or where they choose to go.

Key quote: “From the perspective of postsecondary institutions, awarding AP credit and/or placement may serve as a useful tool for increasing the percentage of students who complete bachelor’s degrees in four years. By awarding college credit and advanced placement to successful AP examinees, postsecondary institutions can free students from unnecessary curricular repetition while simultaneously responding to the issues of overcrowding of introductory courses in the nation’s larger university systems. … For students, AP exams can reduce the total costs associated with a postsecondary education.”

Data they used: College Board data on AP results; National Student Clearinghouse data on college enrollment and graduation.

Title: “The Impact of Tuition Increases on Undocumented College Students’ Attainment”

Authors: Dylan Conger, Lesley J. Turner

What they found: Raising college tuitions reduces enrollment and graduation among undocumented immigrants, particularly when the increase hits early in their college careers.

Why it matters: In 2002, the City University of New York briefly stopped offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. The policy, which lasted just one semester, amounted to a 123 percent ($1,800) tuition increase for undocumented students at CUNY’s “senior” colleges, which offer both associate and bachelor’s degrees; at colleges offering only associate degrees, tuition jumped 23 percent ($300). The authors found that the policy change had a big short-term impact: During the semester of the price increase, the re-enrollment rate of undocumented students fell 6.5 percentage points at senior colleges. For students who were early in their college careers, there were also long-run effects: Students who enrolled for the first time the semester before the tuition hike experienced a 22 percent decrease in the probability of earning a degree. Students who were further along in their education experienced the short-term but not the long-term effects. The study could have broader implications: In recent years, researchers have studied how to increase attendance and graduation among so-called high-achieving, low-income students. Undocumented immigrants disproportionately fall into that category and, unlike native-born students, are generally ineligible for most sources of financial aid such as federal Pell Grants. That means this study helps isolate the impact that tuition has on such students’ college success.

Key quote: “The share of high school graduates who enroll in college in the United States has grown substantially in recent decades, yet college completion rates have declined, especially among low-income students. … Focusing on undocumented students — the majority of whom are low-income and ineligible for federal and state financial aid — provides an opportunity to evaluate the effect of price changes on the attainment of enrolled students with limited financial resources.”

Data they used: Administrative data from the CUNY system.

Title: “It’s Good to be First: Order Bias in Reading and Citing NBER Working Papers”

Authors: Daniel R. Feenberg, Ina Ganguli, Patrick Gaule, Jonathan Gruber

What they found: Papers listed first in a weekly roundup of new economic research are downloaded and cited more often than papers listed further down the list.

Why it matters: Why did I include that last study in this week’s “In The Papers”? I think it was because it was compelling research on an interesting subject. But the authors of this paper suggest that I may have been influenced by another factor: The college tuition paper was listed first in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s weekly email of new research. The email, which goes to about 23,000 subscribers, lists the papers in an effectively random order. The authors find that the first paper listed each week is viewed 33 percent more often, downloaded 29 percent more often and, perhaps most remarkably, cited 27 percent more often in subsequent papers. Appearing lower on the list reduces views and downloads, although it doesn’t affect citations. The results hold up even when focusing just on views and downloads by academics, meaning that even sophisticated readers were affected by where a paper showed up on the list.

Key quote: “These findings confirm that presentation order can be a powerful determinant of choice in a list-based environment — and that this can have strong downstream effects, such as through paper citations in our sample. This suggests that those designing choice mechanisms in a list-based environment consider mechanisms to counteract any such bias; for example, presentation order to those considering goods online could be randomized. At a minimum, decision support tools may want to incorporate this bias into their efforts to provide for the best possible choice for individuals in these environments.”

Data they used: Download and viewership data from NBER; citations from Google Scholar.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.