Theses Doctoral

More Money, Less Problems? Essays on Improving College Access & Success

Sparks, Joseph D.

This dissertation includes three chapters focusing on policies directly related to improving college access and success. The first chapter focuses on lifetime eligibility of federal and state financial aid policies. The Pell Grant plays a critical role in helping students across the US to afford undergraduate education. In spite of its importance to the US system of higher education finance, relatively little is known about the optimal amount of time students should be eligible to receive Pell or other need-based grant aid programs. I exploit changes made during the Obama administration in 2012 that effectivelylowered the maximum lifetime eligibility for Pell from 9 to 6 years of full-time equivalent study. I use a student fixed effects model that estimates the impact of reductions in lifetime Pell eligibility on student enrollment and degree completion outcomes for community college and four-year college students at a large, urban public university system. Findings suggest that lower lifetime eligibility reduced the likelihood of student re-enrollment and lowered students’ academic performance. The policy change reduced the average amount of grant aid students received. Black and Hispanic students and community college entrants were most likely to be impacted by the policy change and attempted to offset declines in grant aid through increases in outside earnings. These results suggest that there are more effective policy levers to encourage enrollment through degree completion outside of the threat of financial aid loss.

The second chapter centers on the role of guidance counselors in education production. Counselors are a common school resource for students navigating complicated and consequential education choices. However, most students have limited access to school counselors. We study one of the largest US policies to increase access to school counselors - California’s Supplemental School Counseling Program. The program increased the average number of high school counselors by .5 and reduced student to counselor ratios by about 40 students. Counselors hired as a result of the program had less experience on average. These changes led to modest increases in high school exit exam pass rates. Our findings hold important policy implications for schools to address persistent equity gaps in college access and rising concerns over students’ mental health.

The third chapter offers further evidence on the efficacy and effectiveness of federal and state financial aid programs. I exploit discontinuities in the Pell Grant formula known as Automatic-Zero Estimated Family Contribution to estimate the effects of Pell Grant aid on community college student enrollment and financial and academic outcomes. I find suggestive evidence that increases in grant aid boost associate degree completion, but these increases do not translate into significantly higher bachelor’s degree completion rates or lower student debt burdens. These results fall in line with most of the empirical literature on Pell Grant aid effectiveness finding only modest effects of marginal increases in financial aid on degree completion. Findings further highlight the potential importance of combining efforts to improve financial aid programs with efforts to improve the transfer experience for degree-seeking, transfer-intending community college students.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Economics and Education
Thesis Advisors
Cohodes, Sarah R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 27, 2023