Research News

The Road to Higher Education

IPR researchers examine aspects of college access and success

hs students visit NU

IPR faculty make major contributions to research on college access, affordability, and persistence. 

Despite rising college costs and student-debt burdens, research continues to show that a four-year college degree is still one of the most viable ways to climb the ladder of success in the United States—especially for those students from traditionally underrepresented groups. IPR faculty are nationally known for their studies of various issues related to college access, affordability, and persistence. Their work is helping to inform policymakers and the public on ways to break through barriers that might prevent low-income students from applying to and attending college—and how to help them succeed once they get there.


Morton Schapiro

Expanding Access

In January, President Barack Obama welcomed 80 university presidents to the White House to kick off his campaign to increase college attendance by low-income students. To organize the campaign, the White House consulted another president, Northwestern’s Morton Schapiro.

Schapiro, also an IPR fellow, is a leading scholar on issues of college affordability and access. His influential second book with Spencer Foundation President Michael McPherson, The Student Aid Game: Meeting Need and Rewarding Talent in American Higher Education (Princeton University Press), argues that federal and state policies need to focus on low-income students who disproportionately attend community colleges instead of four-year institutions and who often face the greatest barriers to attending and graduating from college. Some of his more recent research looks at the factors that might predict whether students graduate from a highly selective college and the effect of tenure- and nontenure-track teaching on student learning (read the related research below).

In addition to working with the White House on college enrollment for low-income students, Schapiro has also spearheaded several initiatives at Northwestern and in the academic community to increase the diversity of students attending selective colleges. He was involved in the creation of Northwestern Academy, a joint tutoring/support program launched by the University and the City of Chicago in December 2013 to help academically talented, low-income Chicago Public School (CPS) students prepare for and attend selective four-year colleges and universities, which will be evaluated by IPR and Northwestern researchers. With IPR Director and education economist David Figlio, Schapiro also hosted a 2012 workshop that brought together university presidents, college and high school administrators, and IPR researchers to discuss the importance of research in informing and evaluating efforts to prepare minority and low-income students for selective four-year colleges.

James Rosenbaum

College “Coaches”

In the United States, 95 percent of all high school seniors plan on attending college, yet half of students who plan to get a college degree fail to do so, and the proportion is much lower for disadvantaged students. Since 2005, IPR education and social policy professor James Rosenbaum has been gathering ethnographic and administrative data from a new college-counseling program implemented in some Chicago public high schools that targets disadvantaged students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. The program helps such students overcome cultural barriers by pairing them with college “coaches,” who advise them on their options for college, demonstrate how to work with admissions counselors, and assist with scholarship applications. Following nearly all Chicago public school seniors for the years 2004-2008 through the fall after high school, Rosenbaum and his research team find that for students with general plans to go to college, coaches are particularly beneficial to disadvantaged students. They provide them with skills and “cultural capital” that are often taken for granted, such as learning how to identify what admission counselors value in applicants and then present themselves accordingly. Working with the coaches also can improve the types of colleges students attend, with disadvantaged students benefiting the most.


College Financing with FAFSA, not Duct Tape

Rosenbaum and IPR graduate research assistant Kelly Iwanaga Becker are examining the ways different high school counselors handle the college and financial aid application process. Building on prior work indicating that counselors encourage low-income students to apply for private scholarships, the researchers expanded the project to include data from all Chicago public high schools, which have a policy of encouraging students to complete three or more scholarship applications. They found that just over 54 percent of seniors who applied to scholarships reported receiving one. This is likely because many students were applying for private scholarships, which are typically very competitive with smaller financial awards, such as the Duck-Tape brand “Stuck at Prom” scholarship, which awards $20,000 to the couple with the best-designed duct-tape prom outfit. They show evidence that these time-consuming applications might derail some students from completing applications for more reliable sources of aid, such as the FAFSA. Their results suggest a need for improving high school advising on the college financial-aid process.

Kirabo Jackson

Targeted Recruiting and Financial Aid

IPR labor economist Kirabo Jackson and colleagues conducted an analysis of the first year of Harvard University’s Financial Aid Initiative in 2005, which increased aid and added targeted recruiting for low-income students. After its implementation, the initiative was shown to have brought in nearly 15 percent more applications from low-income students for the class of 2009. Rather than creating a “form of affirmative action,” the initiative was shown to have drawn from a previously untapped pool of talented, low-income students. Many of these “missing applicants” came from high schools with “little or no tradition” for encouraging their students to apply to private, highly selective colleges. These colleges might be able to increase their numbers of economically diverse students by engaging in such targeted outreach.


Diane Schanzenbach

Elementary Class Size and College Completion

In an award-winning Journal of Policy Analysis and Management article with Susan Dynarski and Joshua Hyman of the University of Michigan, IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach looks at the effects of reducing elementary school class sizes on college enrollment and getting a degree. Using Project STAR data from Tennessee, they find being randomly assigned to attend a smaller class in kindergarten through third grade increases the probability of attending college by 2.7 percentage points, with effects more than twice as large among African Americans. Among those with the lowest projected probability for attending college, the effect is 11 percentage points. In addition, small classes in the early grades improve the likelihood of earning a college degree and majoring in a more technical and high-earning area, such as a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), business, or economics.

Cash Incentives and Outcomes

Additional research by Jackson finds that participating in the Advanced Placement Incentive Program (APIP) is associated with staying in college longer and increased earnings. He looked at the APIP in Texas, which pays substantial cash bonuses to students and their teachers for passing scores on AP exams. In tracking more than 290,000 high school students from 1993 to 2008, he compared changes in student outcomes before and after APIP adoption in the 58 participating schools with changes across the same cohorts in comparable schools that did not adopt it. APIP adoption increased AP course enrollment by 21 percent and rates of passing an AP exam by 45 percent. For those participating in the APIP four years after it was adopted, the probability of students persisting in college as sophomores rose by about 20 percent and post-college earnings increased by 3.7 percent. The pay increases erased the Hispanic-white earnings gap and reduced the black-white earnings gap by one-third. The results imply a per-pupil lifetime earnings benefit of $16,650 for a cost of $450.

Mesmin Destin

One Hour to Improve College Transitions

In a forthcoming Psychological Science article, social psychologist and IPR associate Mesmin Destin, Stanford’s MarYam Hamedani, and Northwestern management and organizations associate professor Nicole Stephens outline a novel one-hour “diversity education” intervention to help first-generation students successfully transition to college. A diverse panel of senior college students told personal stories about their college experience, which included discussions about social class, to a group of first-generation and continuing-generation freshmen. In the “standard intervention” comparison group, panelists did not discuss how social class influenced their experience. The “diversity education” treatment condition closed the social class academic achievement gap by 63 percent and also improved psychological adjustment for all students. At the end of the academic year students were less stressed, more appreciative of diversity, and experiencing better social fit in college. First-generation students, especially, had higher grades, primarily because they were more likely to access campus services, meet with professors, and seek extra tutoring. The authors see this as an effective way for colleges to improve the experiences of students from diverse backgrounds.

figlio DC
David Figlio

Instructors Matter

A recent study led by Figlio indicates a possible way to enhance student learning in college through teaching-focused faculty, especially for low-achieving students. The much publicized working paper—written with Schapiro and Northwestern alumnus Kevin Soter—compares learning outcomes for more than 15,000 freshmen in many different subjects taught by tenure- and nontenure-track faculty at Northwestern. The results, which are specific to selective universities with labor practices like Northwestern, suggest that freshmen taking an introductory class with a nontenure-track faculty member do better academically. They get better grades and are more likely to take a subsequent course in the same subject area. Marginal students who are more prone to struggle with college-level coursework also do better academically when they take a class with a nontenure-line faculty member.

Online v. Offline Learning

In a study published in the Journal of Labor EconomicsFiglio and his co-authors compared the learning outcomes for students taking an online class versus live instruction. They find that relatively low-achieving students, male students, and Hispanic students—the groups most likely to enroll in online courses—did better academically when they took a class face-to-face with an instructor rather than online. Until more research on the topic is done, colleges that simply put traditional courses online could potentially jeopardize student learning, especially for these three groups of students.

Burton Weisbrod

The Perils of Ill-Designed Programs

There is a cautionary note to sound, however, in attempts to increase the numbers of low-income college graduates. In work for his book manuscript, The Perils of Pay for Performance: Why Strong Rewards in Government and Nonprofits Do Not Work, IPR economist Burton Weisbrod examines the unintended—but foreseeable—consequences of the rising tide of efforts to measure “performance” and then to reward that which is considered “good.” Weisbrod examines different public and nonprofit service sectors, including that of higher education. While he acknowledges that the efforts focused on increasing college access and graduation rates are well intentioned—and seemingly supported by research showing that college graduates do better in myriad ways than peers without college diplomas—such efforts could waste resources or fall prey to gaming or both. As an example, one can increase the numbers of low-income students who get into college, but who arrive either ill- or unprepared to do the work and thus do not graduate. Or the system could respond by graduating ill-prepared students with “watered-down degrees that do not mean much,” Weisbrod said. A real-life illustration of the issue occurred in 2006 when the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) decided to address concerns about the dismal graduation rates of Division I student athletes. It accomplished this by changing its calculations to no longer include transfer students, Weisbrod noted, thereby boosting the number of players who graduate to an all-time high of 82 percent for students who entered college that same year.

The solutions for designing programs with meaningful results, including those designed to increase college enrollments, are not simple, Weisbrod cautioned. Great care must be taken to evaluate the issues and then provide incentives that encourage measurable and meaningful progress—rather than incentives to game the system.