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Experimental Evidence on the Effect of Childhood Investments on Postsecondary Attainment and Degree Completion (WP-12-03)

Susan Dynarski, Joshua Hyman, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

This working paper examines the effect of early childhood investments on college enrollment and degree completion. The researchers use the random assignment in the Project STAR experiment to estimate the effect of smaller classes in primary school on college entry, college choice, and degree completion. This study improves on existing work in this area with unusually detailed data on college enrollment spells and the previously unexplored outcome of college degree completion. Their findings show that assignment to a small class increases the probability of attending college by 2.7 percentage points, with effects more than twice as large among blacks. Among those with the lowest ex ante probability of attending college, the effect is 11 percentage points. Smaller classes increase the likelihood of earning a college degree by 1.6 percentage points and shift students towards high-earning fields such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), business, and economics. The researchers confirm the standard finding that test score effects fade out by middle school, but show that test score effects at the time of the experiment are an excellent predictor of long-term improvements in postsecondary outcomes. They compare the costs and impacts of this intervention with other tools for increasing postsecondary attainment, such as Head Start and financial aid, and conclude that early investments are no more cost effective than later investments in boosting adult educational attainment.

Susan Dynarski, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan

Joshua Hyman, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Associate Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

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