Exogenous Shocks

April 21, 2020

I usually start writing these things on Monday morning when I get the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) weekly bulletin. As I scan that, I open an e-mail draft and start dropping in studies…then spend some time here and there cleaning up the writing. Well… there were 20 studies in last week’s NBER bulletin, of which three were relevant to my interests. Usually there are about a half dozen, of which maybe one is something I want to spend some time with. Somebody should study the ways in which NBER output responds to exogenous economic, political, or health shocks… In any case, my reading patterns last week were different.

Here are some things I’ve been reading:

MDRC’s newsletter on Friday had two good pieces. One is on ways in which community colleges are considering equity in CTE programs. They also drew attention to resources for students who are trying to choose where to go to college next year. This is a difficult decision process under the best of circumstances, but this moment has made that decision all the more fraught for our high school seniors. Originally, these resources were developed to address challenges of “under-matching” – the problem where high achieving students enroll at institutions that don’t match their preparation. Often, it’s an information problem. For example, talented students from low-income families know less about their financial aid options. Obviously, there are lots of things that contribute to undermatching, but that one is a pretty classic example. As such, this is not a How-To-Make-A-Choice-During-COVID guide, but it struck me as something that might be helpful to share!

Two NBER papers looked at computer assisted learning. The upshot? One study found that students participating in a computer-assisted learning setting out-performed their peers, but they find the impact of the technology itself was negligible to null. The other points to better results from an approach that blends computer-assisted with traditional in-person delivery.

SIDE NOTE: I think it is incredibly important to separate online learning from what is happening right now, so please resist the urge to apply too many lessons from the literature about online education to the Spring of 2020. Reaching for the longer-term lens, though, even traditional face-to-face courses have been adopting some electronic features. This might be as low-touch an online repository for course documents or as involved as online discussion boards to supplement class. I dare say some of the tools we were forced to adopt for the moment will find uses in traditional classrooms, and that is where I think this literature becomes more helpful. We may well have a chance to rationally rethink certain elements of face-to-face instruction. Will we take it?

I didn’t know whether to cry or just knowingly nod when I saw this recently published study about doctoral dissertation research. The authors find that, over the past 30 years, demographically underrepresented students were more likely to innovate in their research than demographic-majority students, but those innovations are less likely to yield fruit in the form of academic positions than the innovations of their majority peers. This one hurt on a personal level, even if my own dissertation likely didn’t meet their definition for “innovative,” (I examined and explained something that I thought was mis-understood, but I wouldn’t say “second-order social influence – one that operates through another entity” rises to the level of new theory or terminology). The personal gut punch wasn’t even the worst part about this one. The playing field is not level, even for those who earned that ultimate degree…they outdid their peers, but they do not get the jobs. Keep this one in your arsenal any time anybody tries to talk about meritocracy and the pipeline to faculty positions. We are failing to recognize some of our brightest scholars, and I tired of it long ago.

Another of the NBER papers looked at returns to grad school. Not surprisingly, the authors find that returns to grad school largely depend on the field. One interesting, at least to me, thing they note is that returns to grad school vary by undergraduate major – as in the return on getting an MBA will be different for people with different undergraduate majors.

The folks at Just Equations released a report a few weeks ago, Go Figure: Exploring Equity in Students’ Postsecondary Math Pathway Choices. They conducted focus groups at three institutions (two CCs, one CSU), and they selected institutions that they knew had done work to improve math pathways recently to find out how students are getting information and selecting their math pathways. Generally, they find that students use multiple sources of information in selecting courses and often come across information that is inconsistent, and that a large amount of counseling is path-specific, leaving undecided/undeclared students without access to a complete advising experience. Also, eliminating the placement test was a great step, but first-generation students and students with low math confidence might under-place if not properly advised. The authors follow that up with a number of recommendations. They have a webinar on 4/28 to talk about the report, and I will be participating in their discussion. I look forward to digging in, and I encourage folks to register and join us on the 28th!

That’s all for now,

Vikash Reddy
Vikash Reddy, Senior Director of Policy Research