Essays on equality of opportunity and the access to higher education
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Department of Economics.
Abhijit Banerjee, Benjamin Olken and Michael Piore.
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This dissertation examines the question of how to improve the access to higher education for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, in order to promote equality of opportunity. In order to do so, experimental evaluation methodology is used to address relevant research questions and draw actionable policy lessons in the context of the Chilean higher education system. The first chapter of this dissertation studies the impact of college peers on academic performance with the help of a natural experiment in Chile, which allows for exogenous classroom composition. In particular, first year students at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, one of the leading Chilean universities, are randomly assigned to their first semester college class groups. I take advantage of this feature in order to robustly estimate the impact of peer characteristics on undergraduate academic performance. The research hypothesis is that being assigned as a freshman to a group with more or less students from a same school, or from a given socioeconomic background, may result in very different patterns of adaptation, potentially impacting academic performance. Significant evidence is found that suggests that, contrary to the results found in most of the existing literature, the average college admission score of first semester classmates not only has no positive impact on the academic performance of undergraduate students, but may actually be negatively affecting their grades. Also, although there are some differences across degrees and secondary school types, in general undergraduate students are more likely to be dismissed, and have lower grades, when they share their first semester college class with a secondary schoolmate. Moreover, students assigned to first semester college classrooms with a higher concentration of classmates who attended the same secondary school(s) generally have significantly lower grades, and are less likely to graduate. Finally, students sharing their first semester college classroom with students from public or subsidized secondary schools are more likely to be dismissed due to poor academic performance. The fact that these peer effects are persistent In time points to the existence of a path dependence pattern, suggesting that this initial period in college is key for student adaptation. These findings have important implications for the design of policies intended to improve the adaptation of freshman college students and the access to higher education, suggesting that students would benefit from targeted first semester college class group assignment policies, as well as from additional transitional aid tailored to their profiles. The second chapter addresses the question of how to distinguish "knowledge" from "ability", in the context of improving the access to higher education. In particular, according to the existing evidence some higher education admission tests may be screening out students who, despite a relative lack of specific knowledge, possess as much intellectual ability as their peers. If this is the case, students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to be disproportionately affected, since they generally receive a primary and secondary education of worse quality than their better-off peers, often resulting in significant knowledge gaps. Also, although in some cases these formative shortcomings might be too large to be feasibly addressed at the time of enrollment in higher education, it is plausible to think that in some cases they may perhaps be relatively easy to remedy. In view of all this, in this chapter I present a diagnostics experiment, aimed at helping to better understand this issue. In particular, I custom-designed a multiple-choice test, intended to measure an individual's mathematical ability, while minimizing the reliance on previously acquired knowledge. Also, I put together a two page "cheat sheet", which outlined all the necessary concepts to successfully complete the exam, without providing any explicit answers. This test was subsequently used to evaluate the candidates applying for admission into a special access program at one of the leading Chilean universities. A staged randomized control trial was used to measure the difference in academic performance (i.e. number of correctly answered questions) across the three parts of the exam between students who received a "cheat sheet" after the first or second parts of the test, respectively. As expected, "cheat sheets" improved the average performance of candidates on the exam, but their impact varied considerably across individuals. Most importantly, "cheat sheets" proved significantly more beneficial (in terms of improved test performance) to those students who were more likely to have had a secondary education of lower quality. This result has important implications for educational policies in Chile and elsewhere, suggesting that a transition to ability-focused admission tests would facilitate the access to higher education for talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The third and final chapter of this dissertation presents a higher education special access program for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, custom-designed by the author for one of the leading Chilean universities, and implemented as a pilot during the 2013 and 2014 admission periods. A non-experimental comparison of the academic performance of special and ordinary admission students after enrollment finds evidence that, consistent with Arcidiacono et al (2011), although on average special admission students have comparable final grades than their ordinary admission peers, they tend to perform comparatively worse in "hard" subjects (i.e. those with a strong mathematical component). However, although special admission students seem more likely to decide to withdraw earlier, no significant differences in voluntary withdrawal or dismissal rates are observed between the latter and their ordinary admission peers. Moreover, an initial gap in GPA between special and ordinary admission students is closed by the end of the third semester of enrollment. All this suggests that, with some nuances, students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds can successfully catch up with their peers when provided with adequate support, and that special admission programs can therefore be an effective tool to improve the access to higher education. Nonetheless, the fact that the program was undersubscribed suggests that, apart from potential information diffusion problems, the minimum requirements set forth for special admission may have been too stringent, and/or that the demand for special admission among the targeted student population may not be as large as predicted.
Thesis: Ph. D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Economics, 2014.Cataloged from PDF version of thesis.Includes bibliographical references (pages 131-134).
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Department of Economics.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology