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Weighing the Alternatives: Financial Constraints and Early College Enrollment Trajectories Among Low-Income University Students. Peter Kinsley & SARA GOLDRICK-RAB University of Wisconsin-Madison Affordability & College Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education July 8, 2011.

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Peter kinsley sara goldrick rab university of wisconsin madison

Weighing the Alternatives: Financial Constraints and Early College Enrollment Trajectories Among Low-Income University Students

Peter Kinsley &


University of Wisconsin-Madison

Affordability & College Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education

July 8, 2011

America s college completion problem
America’s College Completion Problem

  • Rates of attendance have risen, but rates of completion have not kept pace

    • 6 years after beginning college, 42% of university entrants hold no degree (NCES, 2010)

  • Time-to-degree is up

    • A “4-year” degree now takes nearly 5

    • TTD is longer at public universities, esp. less-selective ones (Bound, Lovenheim, and Turner 2009)

  • Low-income students more likely to take longer to earn a degree and less likely to actually earn one

    • There is a 25 percentage point gap in completion rates between those in the top and bottom income quartiles (NCES, 2010)

    • It is not clear to what degree this gap is attributable to income constraints

Time to degree and enrollment intensity
Time-to-Degree and Enrollment Intensity

  • Time-to-degree and credit hours are closely related

    • ‘Standard’ graduation requirement is 120 credits but can range up to 145 or more depending on program

  • Timely degree completion is highly path dependent

    • Absent pre-enrollment or off-term (i.e. summer or winter) credits, any enrollment less than 15 credits/term lengthens time to degree

  • Policymakers are debating tying the definition of “full-time” enrollment for the Pell Grant to 15 creditsinstead of 12

    • Based on studies of merit-based programs like the West Virginia Promise (e.g. Scott-Clayton, 2011)

Two theories of enrollment decision making financial constraints and path dependence
Two Theories of Enrollment Decision-Making: Financial Constraints and Path Dependence

  • Financial Constraints and Individual Cost-Benefit Analysis

    • If perceived costs are too high relative to expected future benefits (e.g. increased future earnings), a student may decide to substitute alternate activities for enrollment

    • Opportunity costs and the decision to work appear to play a role (Bound, Lovenheim & Turner, 2010)

    • Reduction in the net price of college via financial aid leads students to remain in college and enroll at higher credit levels (Scott-Clayton, 2008; Goldrick-Rab et. al., 2011)

      • Unclear whether reduction in price or associated credit requirements are primary mechanism

  • Path Dependence

    • Students’ semester-by-semester enrollment decisions may be influenced by prior decisions independent of other factors (Pfeffer & Goldrick-Rab, 2011)

Research questions
Research Questions

  • What are the enrollment intensity trajectories of low-income undergraduates over the first two years of college?

  • Are financial constraints associated with the decision to reduce enrollment intensity among low-income college students?

  • To what extent are the enrollment trajectories of low-income students path dependent (i.e. independent of other factors)?

  • What costs and benefits do low-income college students consider in their semester-by-semester enrollment intensity decisions?

Sampling and data
Sampling and Data

  • Analytic subsample

    • Four-year students who consented to use of administrative data and completed baseline survey in fall 2008 (n=828)

  • Interview subsample

    • Semi-structured interviews at six-month intervals over first two years of college (n=36)

  • Data sources

    • UW System and universities

    • Student 2008 FAFSA

    • ACT records

    • Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development

    • Surveys (fall 2008, fall 2009)

    • Student interview data

Enrollment intensity decision analytic strategy
Enrollment Intensity Decision: Analytic Strategy

  • Stage 1: Enrollment track distribution

    • Descriptive statistics on enrollment patterns among full sample and selected sub-groups over first two years of college

  • Stage 2: Multivariate analysis

    • Multinomial logistic regression models by term to model enrollment intensity choice. University fixed effects; multiple imputation for missing data

  • Stage 3: Student interview data

    • Students’ discussions of enrollment intensity and enrollment decision-making over the first two years of college

Statistical model variables
Statistical Model Variables

  • Outcome variable=enrollment “tracks” over four terms (fall 2008-spring 2010)

    • Four-year track: enrolled in 15+ credits/semester

    • Five-year track: enrolled in 12-14 credits/semester

    • Six-plus year track: enrolled in 1-11 credits/semester

    • Not enrolled or reverse transfer

Statistical model variables1
Statistical Model Variables

  • Lagged predictors

    • Hours worked per week (f08 & f09)

    • Unemployment rate in home county (2008 & 2009)

    • Average monthly wage in home county (2008 & 2009)

    • Financial worry (f08 & f09)

    • Material support from family (f08 & f09)

    • Prior semester track position

  • Control measures

    • Assignment to receive FFWS grant

    • Family background—income, investment, zero EFC, gender, race, degree aspiration, married, children

    • Academic preparation—ACT composite, high school GPA

    • College performance—pre-enrollment credits, summer credits, cumulative GPA, transfer

Multivariate findings
Multivariate Findings

  • Financial predictors had significant but moderate impacts on enrollment intensity decisions

    • Hours worked—increased work hours associated with greater probability of enrolling in 12-14 credits during first semester

    • Unemployment rates—higher unemployment rates associated with increased probability of enrolling in 15+ credits during first year.

    • Financial worry—higher worry associated with decreased probability of part-time enrollment during second semester but increased probability of part-time enrollment in third semester

    • Family material support—higher support associated with decreased probability of part-time enrollment in second and third semesters

Predicted probability of enrollment in four year track by prior term intensity
Predicted Probability of Enrollment in Four-Year Track by Prior Term Intensity

Other key factors academic preparation and performance
Other Key Factors: Academic Preparation and Performance

  • Higher levels of pre-college academic preparation sharply decreased probability of part-time and non-enrollment during first year

  • College academic performance was particularly important

    • Higher cumulative GPA from prior term resulted in progressively lower probability of reducing enrollment below 15 credits in subsequent term

    • Strong and significant effects across all terms and nearly all levels of enrollment

Student interviews
Student Interviews

  • Subsample of 36 WSLS students attending four-year colleges in fall 2008

    • Minority students oversampled and represent over half (57%) of subsample

  • Four semi-structured interviews conducted at 6-month intervals over the first two years of college

  • Two-stage coding process

    • Any discussion of enrollment decision-making explicitly coded

    • Sub-themes emerged inductively over the course of reading the interviews and were also coded

Family obligations and norms
Family Obligations and Norms

Tou: Male Hmong-American student. Wants to become a police officer and major in criminal justice. Lives with mother, father, uncle, seven siblings. Enrolled in four classes (12 credits) each semester during first year. Also worked 20-30 hours per week at local grocery store during that period.

Interviewer: Do you have any goals for yourself for next semester?

Tou: Yeah, don't slack off… you have to have 30 credits each year…this year I only have 14, and the next [semester] I can only fit four classes in. At night I have to come home before 1 pm because [that’s] when my baby cousin comes over, my aunt's son, and I have to babysit him. So I have to come home before 1. And then at 2 or 2:30 I have to go pick up my sisters from high school. My sister, my younger brother, my youngest sister, and my [other] younger brother. Around 3 I have to go pick up my twin brothers that's still going to middle school. And then, yeah, and then go to work.

Family obligations and norms cont d
Family Obligations and Norms cont’d.

Interviewer: Do you work full-time during the school year, too?

Tou: No, I actually work part-time. My dad makes me work part-time. I want to work full-time but he says it'll be too hard and since I want to become an officer in the future it's going to be hard already (laughs)… Every time I'm not going to school [my dad] would let me pay the bills or work full-time to pay the bills and stuff. But you can tell… he doesn't want you to, he just wants you to go to school. But sometimes he has to.

Financial hardship
Financial Hardship

Anna: Female African American student majoring in accounting. Lives with mother in low-income apartment complex. Mother hospitalized with Lupus and lost job. Landlord made Anna reduce credit load to part-time in order to continue living at apartment during her second semester at college.

Interviewer: So you’re just going along, a full time student, and everything’s normal, and then your landlord comes up to you and says…

Anna: Yeah. She said she needed to talk to me about something so I went over there. She was saying that the lease said if you’re a college student you can’t live at home. It just really didn’t make any sense… It’s my first semester and you’re telling me that I can’t go full time, but three-quarters. Then like I didn’t know how financial aid really worked ‘cuz that was the first semester. I didn’t want to be where we had to pay or take out loans cuz I didn’t want to be in that situation.  

Financial hardship cont d
Financial Hardship cont’d

Anna: I talked to my advisor at school about it and she had to type up a letter showing proof that I went down from full to three-quarters….even now I still don’t really understand it. But there’s so many things to be focusing on instead of me going to school… You know, my mom’s not working and there’s just a lot going on so sometimes I really wish we could move into a house or something where we don’t have to deal with that. And I just try not to think [about it]. And I figure that with my mom not working, and I don’t have an income, [moving] would just not be a smart thing to do.

Managing academic progress
Managing Academic Progress

Celina: Hispanic female working on prerequisites for pharmacy school. Very involved in Latina sorority during freshman year which lead to academic difficulties and academic probation. Successfully raised GPA by reducing credit load.

Interviewer: How many credits are you taking this term?

Celina: This term, like 14.

Interviewer: So is that the same for last term as well?

Celina: I think last one I had 12. Cause my main focus was to bring everything up, like my GPA straight up. It was like a booster, cause I took three science classes.

Interviewer: So you decided to take 12 because you thought that would help boost your GPA?

Celina: Yeah, and it did—I took three classes so it was good. I could dedicate much more time to what I needed to do.

Conclusion and implications
Conclusion and Implications

  • Finances influence student enrollment intensity decisions in both direct and indirect ways

    • Greater availability of work opportunities may lead to reduced enrollment

    • Family material support may act as a buffer to part-time enrollment

    • Student decisions influenced by family financial and caretaking obligations

  • Students who start college at 15 credits appear far more likely to continue enrolling at that level compared to those who start at fewer credits

    • Advising students to enroll in 12 credits during the first semester may unnecessarily increase time to degree; however…

  • Managing academic progress plays an important role in ongoing student enrollment decisions

    • Requiring Pell recipients to consistently maintain 15 credits may penalize academically weaker students and provide incentive to pursue subjectively “easier” degrees

Covariate balance of subsamples
Covariate Balanceof Subsamples