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Commentary By Preston Cooper

College Access Is About Guidance As Well As Money

Economics Regulatory Policy

A central debate over today’s higher education policy is how to get more students going to college. Less discussed is how to ensure that promising students from underprivileged backgrounds attend better colleges. Since evidence indicates that college attendance can be a breakeven investment or even a losing one for students who are not prepared, the second goal ought to receive some more attention.

Economists Rodney Andrews (University of Texas-Dallas), Scott Imberman (Michigan State University), and Michael Lovenheim (Cornell University) study this question in a new NBER working paper that examines two programs in Texas that provided scholarship funding and institutional support to students from low-income high schools to attend the state’s eminent public schools, the University of Texas (UT) at Austin and Texas A&M University (TAMU). Despite broad similarities, the UT-Austin program succeeded in boosting enrollment and graduation rates, while the TAMU program seems to have failed. The reason for the two divergent outcomes offers lessons for improving higher education.

It is important to recognize that the UT-Austin program did not increase college attendance overall, but merely resorted students that would have gone to other four-year public colleges into the state’s flagship public university. In other words, the program improved college matching: ensuring that students of high ability attend the colleges that can best help them realize their full potential.

According to an analysis by Eleanor Dillon and Jeffrey Smith, college-student matching in its present state is decent but not spectacular. The chart below, which represents individuals who attended college in the early 2000s, details how well students in various ability quartiles (measured by a broad-ranging aptitude test) are matched to college quality quartiles. Perfect matching would place 25% of the student population in each circle along the diagonal, with no students in the other circles.

Students in both the top ability quartile and the top college quality quartile represent 11% of the overall student population, or 44% of all students in the top ability quartile. Overall, 36% of students attend a college in their corresponding quality quartile, and 77% attend a school within one quartile of their ability group. The Texas interventions aimed to encourage students in the top row (i.e., the top ability quartile) to attend top-quality schools in the rightmost column. In other words, the architects of the programs wanted to make that top-right circle bigger. While evidence shows that the gains from matching are limited, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

So why did the TAMU program fail while the UT-Austin one succeeded? Both programs offered similarly generous aid packages, so financial incentives are probably not the reason. While UT-Austin is perceived as a better school, TAMU is not far behind, so differing student perceptions are likely not the answer either. The most plausible explanation is the varying levels of institutional support each program offered. The UT-Austin program offered free tutoring and peer mentoring, and allowed participating students to take special entry-level classes with enrollment limited to students in the program. Instructors were able to tailor the courses to the unique needs of the program’s students, many of whom came from poor-quality high schools. The TAMU program, on the other hand, had only limited institutional support.

This raises an intriguing possibility: for high-ability, low-socioeconomic status students, perhaps the choice to pursue a top-quality college is less about scholarship funding and more about knowing that you will be taken care of once you enroll. After all, federal financial aid is generous to a fault, and a student attending in-state public university may already see most of his bill covered by Pell Grants, institutional aid, and subsidized loans. Scholarships on top of this might not do much more. But without nonfinancial support, many students will fall behind and might even drop out. Mitigating this risk is a must to improve college matching.

While more research is certainly needed, stronger institutional support shows more promise than other proposals, such as increasing Pell Grants or expanding affirmative action. Affirmative action in particular is a blunt instrument for getting high-ability students of low socioeconomic status into top colleges, and one study suggests that it actually worsens college matching.

It is not enough to open the doors of top colleges to promising students; they must also know they can succeed. In higher education, as in other policy sectors, the solution must be more than throwing money (or regulations) at the problem.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

Preston Cooper is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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