College Quality & College Choice

Joshua Goodman. Photo: Martha StewartAn interview with Professor Joshua Goodman Finds Significant College Quality Effect

Low-income, low-skilled students are at a disadvantage. Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Joshua Goodman is undertaking ground-breaking research that can help education professionals and policymakers help these low-income, underperforming students attend the highest quality colleges and universities available.

Professor Goodman and his co-authors from College Board have utilized data from 1.5 million SAT test-takers from 2004-2007. They found strong evidence: college quality matters in students’ initial college choice, and that choice affects educational outcomes like degree completion.

The researchers studied Georgia’s state university system, which has public SAT score thresholds, and other public colleges with detectable but hidden thresholds. Their study used regression discontinuity methods to identify students just above and just below these thresholds. If students did not meet the threshold, they were more likely to enroll at a two-year college or a lower-quality, yet more-expensive four-year college. If students did meet the threshold, their likelihood of actually completing their degree increased substantially—nearly doubling the likelihood of graduation for low-income students.

Small differences in test scores have outsize impact, according to these findings by Goodman and his colleagues. Students at the margin could see great gains in outcomes down the road with test preparation or retaking the test to improve their scores.

Some claim that lower-skilled college applicants simply lack the academic ability to complete a four-year college degree, but these findings, using instrumental variable techniques, show that idea false.  Instead, policymakers could assume that the marginal student—the student near the SAT score cutoff—does generally have the aptitude to complete a four-year college degree.

Structural barriers may be limiting low-income, low-skilled students’ ability to access higher-quality institutions, where students have better educational outcomes. Goodman’s findings suggest that “students may be failing to take low-cost steps that would widen their enrollment options.”

For Kennedy School students, Goodman’s present paper is informative beyond its content. For students interested in education policy and reform, the conclusions in the paper provide much fodder for further action and research in the area of college access. For all students in the MPP Core, Professor Goodman’s methodology demonstrates the importance of the API-202 course, with its focus on Instrumental Variables, Regression Analysis, and Discontinuities. Professor Goodman has put these course concepts into practice, providing a paper that MPP students can not only analyze and understand but also look to as a model for their own future research endeavors.