Theses Doctoral

Essays on the Economics of Education: Structured Transfer Programs, Enrollment Patterns, and Efficiency at Community Colleges

Crosta, Peter Michael

In the United States, community colleges serve nearly half of the 18 million students enrolled in postsecondary education. However, it has only been the last decade or so where these public, two-year institutions have claimed substantial attention from the research community. This dissertation consists of three essays that focus on aspects of the community college student pathway and feature analyses relevant to research, college, and state stakeholders. The first essay evaluates the effectiveness of structured transfer pathways for Associate in Arts and Associate in Science degrees in North Carolina (called pre-major programs). It asks how these programs impact student behavior and the postsecondary outcomes of earning a community college credential, transferring to a four-year institution, and earning a baccalaureate degree compared to students enrolled in conventional, less structured associate degree programs. The paper employs an instrumental variables technique that exploits exogenous variation in student exposure to the pre-major program opportunity. Among first-time in college students, reduced-form estimates suggest that pre-major programs have a negative intent-to-treat effect on earning the intended community college credential among students enrolled in institutions that offer pre-majors. However, the program offer does not appear to have an effect on four-year credential outcomes. A plausible explanation for the findings is not that structured programs are ineffective, but rather, there likely is a failure in the policies between two-year and four-year colleges that govern the transfer of credits. Alternatively, the programs may simply be too ``light touch" to result in detectable impacts. The second essay examines the relationship between community college enrollment patterns and two successful student outcomes -- credential completion and transfer to a four-year institution. It also introduces a new way to visualize the various attendance patterns of community college students. Patterns of enrollment intensity (full- or part-time status) and continuity (enrolling in consecutive terms or skipping one or more terms) are graphed and then clustered according to their salient features. Using data on cohorts of first-time community college students at five colleges in a single state, the study finds that over an 18-semester period, ten patterns of attendance account for nearly half the students, with the two most common patterns characterized by enrolling in one semester full time or one semester part time. Among the remaining students who persisted, there is astounding variation in their patterns of enrollment. Clustering reveals two relationships: the first is a positive association between enrollment continuity and earning a community college credential and the second is a positive association between enrollment intensity and the likelihood of transfer. The third essay discusses an economic model for community college pathways. In a departure from cost models that use cross-sectional data to relate college expenditures to student outcomes, this paper takes a longitudinal cohort approach to estimate pathway costs. It suggests a model for estimating costs, revenues, and efficiency metrics for cohorts of students progressing through a community college. The framework is then used to simulate how economic metrics change as intermediate student and institutional goals are accomplished, with a special emphasis on informing colleges engaging in reform processes. It is argued that goals with the greatest efficiency (such as increasing completion rates for students who have earned 30 credits but have not earned a credential) should be preferred when budget consciousness is prioritized. Efficiency is a central theme running through the essays. In the first essay, structured transfer pathways are not found to be more efficient (in terms of student progression) than unstructured pathways, likely due to policy weaknesses. The second essay highlights the scattered enrollment patterns generated by community college students, many of which are not efficient pathways for completing college. The third essay explicitly measures the expenditures and outputs to understand efficiency quantitatively and to see how college reforms may improve efficiency.


  • thumnail for Crosta_columbia_0054D_11666.pdf Crosta_columbia_0054D_11666.pdf application/pdf 2.39 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Economics and Education
Thesis Advisors
Bailey, Thomas
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 18, 2013