Postsecondary Education

Achievement and Attainment

Measuring Instructor Effectiveness in Higher Education

Jacob, Brian, De Vlieger, Pieter, and Kevin Stange. 2017. “Measuring Instructor Effectiveness in Higher Education.” In Productivity in Higher Education, Eds. Hoxby and Stange.


Instructors are a chief input into the higher education production process, yet we know very little about their role in promoting student success. This is in contrast to elementary and secondary schooling, for which ample evidence suggests teacher quality is an important determinant of student achievement. Whether colleges could improve student and institutional performance by reallocating instructors or altering personnel policies hinges on the role of instructors in student success. In this paper we measure variation in postsecondary instructor effectiveness and estimate its relationship to overall and course-specific teaching experience. We explore this issue in the context of the University of Phoenix, a large for-profit university that offers both online and in-person courses in a wide array of fields and degree programs. We focus on instructors in the college algebra course that is required for all BA degree program students. We find substantial variation in student performance across instructors both in the current class and subsequent classes. Variation is larger for in-person classes, but is still substantial for online courses. Effectiveness grows modestly with course-specific teaching experience, but is unrelated to pay. Our results suggest that personnel policies for recruiting, developing, motivating, and retaining effective postsecondary instructors may be a key, yet underdeveloped, tool for improving institutional productivity.

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Pricing, Aid and Student Loans

Simplifying Financial Aid

Tax Benefits for College Attendance

Susan M. Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton. 2017. “Tax Benefits for College Attendance,” in Alan Auerbach and Kent Smetters, eds., The Economics of Tax Policy. Oxford University Press.


National efforts to promote college enrollment are increasingly delivered through tax-based assistance, including tax credits and deductions for tuition and fees, tax-advantaged college savings plans, and student loan interest deductions. This paper outlines the main tax-based student aid programs and describes their history and growth over time. We then provide an economic perspective on tax-based student aid, and an assessment of their impact on student behavior. We conclude with a discussion of what the tax system does particularly well and what it does particularly poorly in comparison to traditional Department of Education-based student aid programs, and highlight opportunities for productive reform. At a minimum, a simpler system of education tax benefits would decrease the administrative and time costs of transferring funds to households with postsecondary expenses. At best, simplification would clarify incentives and increase investments in human capital.

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Merit Aid

Pricing, Finance and Taxation

Differential Pricing in Undergraduate Education: Effects on Degree Production by Field

Stange, K. 2015. “Differential Pricing in Undergraduate Education: Effects on Degree Production by Field.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 34(1):107-135.


In the face of declining state support, many universities have introduced differential pricing by undergraduate program as an alternative to across-the-board tuition increases. This practice aligns price more closely with instructional costs and students’ ability to pay post-graduation. Exploiting the staggered adoption of these policies across universities, this paper finds that differential pricing does alter the allocation of students to majors, though heterogeneity across fields may suggest a greater supply response in particularly oversubscribed fields such as nursing. There is some evidence that student groups already underrepresented in certain fields are particularly affected by the new pricing policies. Price does appear to be a policy lever through which state governments can alter the field composition of the workforce they are training with the public higher education system.

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Marginal Pricing and Student Investment in Higher Education.

Hemelt, S., Stange, K. 2016. “Marginal Pricing and Student Investment in Higher Education.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 35(2):441-471.


This paper examines the effect of marginal price on students’ educational investments using rich administrative data on students at Michigan public universities. Marginal price refers to the amount colleges charge for each additional credit taken in a semester. Institutions differ in how they price credits above the full-time minimum (of 12 credits), with many institutions reducing the marginal price of such credits to zero. We find that a zero marginal price induces a modest share of students (i.e., 7 percent) to attempt up to one additional class (i.e., three credits) but also increases withdrawals and lowers course performance. The analysis generally suggests minimal impacts on credits earned and the likelihood of meeting “on-time” benchmarks toward college completion, though estimates for these outcomes are less precise and more variable across specifications. Consistent with theory, the effect on attempted credits is largest among students who would otherwise locate at the full-time minimum, which includes lower-achieving and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

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