Getting more young people to go to university

Bruce Sacerdote interviewed by Romesh Vaitilingam, 05 June 2009

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<p><em>Romesh Vaitilingam interviews Bruce Sacerdote for Vox<br />
<br />
Feburary 2009<br />
<br />
Transcription of an VoxEU audio interview [</em></p>
<p><strong>Romesh Vaitilingam</strong>: Welcome to Vox Talks, a series of audio interviews with leading economists from around the world. My name is Romesh Vaitilingam, and today I'm talking to Bruce Sacerdote from Dartmouth College. And we're going to be talking about a research program he's involved in, looking at trying to get more kids to go to college. Bruce, why don't you start off by explaining your approach to this issue.</p>
<p><strong>Bruce Sacerdote</strong>: One of the big issues facing the US is that we used to lead the world in terms of the number of students graduating with four-year degrees, and now we're like 13th among the high-income countries. So we've remained roughly flat over the last 10 years, in terms of the college-going rate. And among women, it's quite extraordinary, but among men, there's been no gains at all.</p>
<p><strong>Romesh</strong>: What sort of percentages are we talking?</p>
<p><strong>Bruce</strong>: I think we're talking about something like 65 percent of women going on to four-year schools, and substantially fewer men, maybe like 55 percent. But then, only about something like half of those folks will graduate with a four-year degree. So, again, it puts us something like 13th in the world.</p>
<p>So there's been a lot of recent attention drawn to this in the US. And one of the things that my co-author, Scott Carrell, and I are trying to do is say, well, look, as a first step, who are the kids who were right on the margin of going, who've basically got the qualifications and the academic ability and just aren't going to college, for whatever reason? So can we identify those kids, and then can we give them that extra push, to get them to apply and to go?</p>
<p>So we're working with both a number of schools in Vermont and in New Hampshire. And basically, we've got a whole cadre of Dartmouth students who help us do this. And we go to a school. We ask the guidance counselors, &quot;OK, who are the kids who are just on the margin?&quot; or &quot;Here it is, February. Who hasn't applied to college yet, but you think, in some sense, ought to?&quot;, in quotes.</p>
<p>And we get that list. It's typically like five to 10 kids per school. And we offer them a $100 bonus for filling out a college application. We assign them a Dartmouth student to help them, help coach them through the essay and through the whole application procedure, and through what's called the FAFSA form, which is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is the thing they need to file in order to get what we call the Pell Grant and the Stafford Loans, basically federally subsidized, federally guaranteed loans.</p>
<p>So we help them through this whole mess of paperwork, and they're typically very grateful and happy that we've done it. And it's been a really exciting project.</p>
<p>In the one school where we're just finishing up work, 10 out of 10 of the kids that we're working with have filed multiple college applications, and we're hopeful that a lot of those will go on to college. And these are kids who had taken almost no steps to apply to college prior to us showing up. So we're pretty excited about that.</p>
<p>I mean, we're basically thinking that it's these small costs. They don't know, they've never done this before. They haven't dealt with all the bureaucracy of the web-based applications and the paperwork and whatnot. And so, by giving them a helping hand through that, and some cash bonuses to get their attention, it seems to make a difference.</p>
<p>And we won't know, really, among this group, what the college-going rate or the college-graduation rate is or anything like that. We won't know that for a while. But so far, we're optimistic, and we're excited about doing it.</p>
<p><strong>Romesh</strong>: What do you think has been the problem here? What is it about the rates that's kept them flat? And you've fallen behind in the league table, in terms of international performance. Is it other countries overtaking? Is it countries of Asia..?</p>
<p><strong>Bruce</strong>: Yeah. Certainly. Certainly it's that, and the countries in Europe just sending more and more students. And we don't really know why this is.</p>
<p>It's not that the returns to college are low. And we think there's very reasonable, maybe 9, 10 percent returns to college, so clearly more than pays for itself. And that's only the financial returns. Of course, there's lots of other consumption reasons to go, and it's fun, and people enjoy their jobs.</p>
<p>College-educated workers seem to enjoy their jobs more and have more control over their hours and things like that, and have better health and their kids have better health and they take better vacations and all that kind of stuff. So it's not a lack of returns being there.</p>
<p>Part of it may be that it can be relatively expensive in the US to go, so part of it might be a price-elasticity story. But we've done a lot of work, not me personally, but my colleagues have done a lot of work trying to measure the price elasticity, and that clearly is not the whole story.</p>
<p>And part of it is that some of the secondary schools are so bad that kids are either completely not prepared for it or they are not well-informed about why they should be going and precisely what they need to do to get there. So it's a combination of all those things.</p>
<p><strong>Romesh</strong>: Do you think there's some optimal proportion of the population that should go to college? I mean, in the UK, the last prime minister set the target of &ldquo;we want 50 percent of kids to go to university&rdquo;. People couldn't decide whether that was a big number or a small number.</p>
<p><strong>Bruce</strong>: Yeah, it's a really hard question. I mean, that is sort of the ultimate question, right? And it's a really hard one. I guess, as an economist, what you would say is that people should go as long as there are positive returns to going.</p>
<p>It's a relatively secure and long-term investment that you can make. As an economist, people would say, &quot;Well, as long as you're getting returns better than the Treasury rate or something, or better than a savings account, then you should be investing in this.&quot;</p>
<p>So the short answer is that we don't know. But as long as the returns are like 9, 10 percent, we're sure that not enough people are going, in some sense.</p>
<p><strong>Romesh</strong>: Do you think there's been some failure on the part of economists and people in education to explain what the real benefits are and to help young people and their parents think about trading off the costs and benefits of going to university?</p>
<p><strong>Bruce</strong>: You know, I think that we've been too abstract about this. It's funny. In some ways, I think the opposite, which is that it's not what we've not trumpeted the benefits, because people ought to know that college-educated workers make substantially more than high-school graduates, who make substantially more than high-school dropouts. That just seems like it should be incredibly obvious.</p>
<p>So, in some ways, the information is staring at people in the face all day long. So it's more that, while this abstract fact is true, and it's a very long-run kind of thinking that's required in order to make sure that you make reasonable investments, maybe we haven't done enough just blocking and tackling on the ground and saying, &quot;Look, you need to get this application filed by this certain time, &quot; or &quot;We need to simplify these applications to make sure that everyone can do it.&quot;</p>
<p>Instead of putting the information out there and expecting people to solve the whole maximization problem and do the long-term planning, maybe we need more blocking and tackling of just saying, &quot;Look, you need to do this. This is really important. We're going to make this part of your required schoolwork, or we just demand that you do this, or we really expect that you should be targeting this&rdquo;, without necessarily expecting that they're going to work out the 25-year maximization problem that would lead them to conclude on their own that they ought to be going.</p>
<p>That's all I can think of. But it's clearly a bit of a conundrum.</p>
<p><strong>Romesh</strong>: In terms of allocation of government money to encourage this, is this the right place in the pipe, as it were, to focus attention, or should we be going back to the younger kids and to their parents and saying, &quot;Come on, education is really important&quot;?</p>
<p><strong>Bruce</strong>: Yeah. I mean, certainly, most researchers think about focusing on younger kids so that kids are fully college-ready by the time they hit the 11th and 12th grade. There's been so much focus. And so the US Department of Education spends billions on their TRIO program, which is basically picking out eighth-graders and trying to identify kids who might be at risk and really would be good candidates for college. And so lots and lots of money is spent on that.</p>
<p>And Scott and I figured, well, there's so much being spent there, and not very much at all from the federal government being targeted just to those kids who are at that last moment of that last month where they should be filing. But we thought there's probably some low-hanging fruit there.</p>
<p>To our eyes so far, it looks like maybe that's the case. So it's certainly not that we're against starting young and working on the problem early, but people already know that and seem to be focused on it.</p>
<p>And again, that's more of the long-term building up, &quot;OK, let's get kids ready over the next 10 years. Let's get it in their heads that college is a good thing, and let those ideas bubble to the surface four years later when they should be filing applications.&quot;</p>
<p>And I'm a little bit more interested in the blocking and tackling of just getting in at that moment and making sure they do the job, whether they understand perfectly why this is in their long-term interest and precisely what the rate of return will be and that kind of thing, just helping them get through that to get over that hurdle.</p>
<p><strong>Romesh</strong>: As you say, and as with everything in education, it's always hard&hellip;you have to wait a long time to see the payoffs. But it sounds like there's a promising result from yours. Are you thinking about how you might be able to roll it out or encourage other people to take it up?</p>
<p><strong>Bruce</strong>: Yeah, that's right. So we're only in a handful of schools this year, and we'd like to roll it out to about 20 high schools next year. And once we do that, then we'll have a few hundred kids in the sample, and that'll be enough to start making statistical claims about, &quot;OK, here was our treatment group. Here was our control group. Here's the exact proportion. Here is the precise increase that's due to our program.&quot;</p>
<p>And then, if that's successful, we want to roll it out throughout the state and then take it from there. And hopefully, if it is successful, other people will take it up.</p>
<p>The other way of rolling this out&hellip;fundamentally, I think that in the US, we don't focus enough on guidance counseling. We know the teachers matter a lot, and we've put more and more resources into getting more teachers and getting better teachers. And we've only begun that job, but we know that that's something we need to do.</p>
<p>People haven't really been talking about the guidance-counseling portion. You've got one teacher per 25 students in the typical American classroom, and yet you've got, in many schools, one guidance counselor for 300 seniors, or two guidance counselors for 300 seniors. And so the proportions are just overwhelming. And so maybe we need to beef up guidance, too.</p>
<p><strong>Romesh</strong>: Bruce Sacerdote, thank you very much.</p>
<p><strong>Bruce</strong>: All right. Thank you, Romesh.</p>

Topics:  Education

Tags:  returns to education, guidance counselling

Professor of Economics, Dartmouth College


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