Research

Selected Publications

Can Behavioral Tools Improve Online Student Outcomes? Experimental Evidence from a Massive Open Online Course.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. 2018.

Online students often experience poor academic outcomes. To address poor outcomes for online students, I leverage insights from behavioral economics to design three software tools including (1) a commitment device, (2) a reminder tool, and (3) a focusing tool. I test the impact of these tools in a massive open online course (MOOC). Relative to students in the control group, students in the commitment device treatment spend 24% more time working on the course, receive course grades that are 0.29 standard deviations higher, and are 40% more likely to complete the course. In contrast, outcomes for students in the reminder and focusing treatments are statistically indistinguishable from the control.

Computers and Productivity: Evidence from Laptop Use in the College Classroom.With Robert Patterson. Economics of Education Review. 2017.

This paper evaluates the effect of classroom computer use on academic performance. Using a quasi-experimental design and administrative data, we find that computer use in college classrooms has a negative impact on course grades. Our study exploits institutional policies that generate plausibly random variation in computer use within the classroom. Specifically, we find that having at least one laptop-required course on the same day as a laptop-optional course increases the likelihood that a student uses a laptop in the laptop-optional course. Similarly, having at least one laptop-prohibited course on the same day as laptop-optional course decreases the likelihood that a student uses a laptop in the laptop-optional course. Compared to students who are not affected by computer policies in their other courses, students who are induced to use computers in class perform significantly worse and students who are influenced not to use computers perform significantly better. We find that the negative effects of computer use are concentrated among males and low-performing students and more prominent in quantitative courses.

The Competitive Effects of Online Education.” With David Deming and Michael Lovenheim. Forthcoming in Productivity in Higher Education (Caroline Hoxby and Kevin Stange, Eds.). Also published as NBER Working Paper No. 22749.

We study the impact of online degree programs on the market for U.S. higher education. Online degree programs increase the competitiveness of local education markets by providing additional options in areas that previously only had a small number of brick-and-mortar schools. We show that local postsecondary institutions in less competitive markets experienced relative enrollment declines following a regulatory change in 2006 that increased the market entry and enrollment of online institutions. Impacts on enrollment were concentrated among private non-selective institutions, which are likely to be the closest competitors to online degree programs. We also find increases in per-student instructional spending among public institutions. Our results suggest that by increasing competitive pressure on local schools, online education can be an important driver of innovation and productivity in U.S. higher education.

Could Trends in Time Children Spend with Parents Help Explain the Black-White Gap in Human Capital? Evidence from The American Time Use Survey.” Education Economics. 2017.

It is widely believed that the time children spend with parents significantly impacts human capital formation. If time varies significantly between black and white children, this may help explain the large racial gap in test scores and wages. In this study, I use data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) to examine the patterns in the time black and white children receive from mothers at each age between birth and age 14. I relate patterns in parenting time to trends in human capital formation observed in the literature. I observe that black children spend significantly less time with their mothers than white children in the first years of life. However, differences in parenting time rapidly decline with age and there are never significant differences in teaching time after socioeconomic variables are controlled. My findings suggest the black-white human capital gap is unlikely to be driven by differences in teaching time or differences in parenting time after children enter school.

Charter School Unionization and Student Outcomes.With Jordan Matsudaira. Economics of Education Review. 2017.

We examine the impact of unions on the quality of educational production by studying a wave of unionization among California charter schools and administrative data on student achievement. We first present new data showing that unions are much more prevalent among charter schools than suggested by previous studies.Using a difference-in-differences identification strategy, we find that unionization increases achievement in Mathematics and has no statistically significant impact on English test scores.

Working Papers

Attribution Bias in Major Decisions: Evidence from Major Choice at the United States Military Academy." With Kareem Haggag, Nolan Pope, and Aaron Feudo.

We use administrative data to study the role of attribution bias in a high-stakes, consequential decision: the choice of a college major. Specifically, we examine the influence of fatigue experienced during exposure to a general education course on whether students choose the major corresponding to that course. To do so, we exploit the conditional random assignment of student course schedules at the United States Military Academy. We find that students who are assigned to an early morning (7:30 AM) section of a general education course are roughly 10% less likely to major in that subject, relative to students assigned to a later time slot for the course. We find similar effects for fatigue generated by having one or more back-to-back courses immediately prior to a general education course that starts later in the day. Finally, we demonstrate that the pattern of results is consistent with attribution bias and difficult to reconcile with competing explanations.

Addressing Planning Failures: Experimental Evidence from an Online University.With Phil Oreopoulos, Uros Petronijevic, and Nolan Pope.

We evaluate two low-cost college support programs designed to directly target insufficient study time, a common problem among many undergraduate students. We conduct our experiment across three distinct college-types: (i) a selective urban college campus, (ii) a less-selective suburban college campus, and (iii) an online college, using a combination of unique survey and administrative data. More than 9,000 students were randomly assigned to complete an online planning exercise with information and guidance to create a weekly schedule containing sufficient study time and other obligations. Treated students also received weekly study tips, reminders, and coach consultations via text message throughout the academic year. Despite high levels of fidelity and initial participation, we estimate precise null effects on academic outcomes at each site, implying that the planning treatment was ineffective at improving student credit accumulation, course grades, and retention. We do find suggestive evidence, however, that the planning treatment marginally increased student study time. Taken together, the results suggest that, in addition to helping students stay organized, an effective intervention may need to provide stronger incentives or specific guidance on the tasks to complete while studying.


“Timing is (Nearly) Everything in College Major Choice.” With Nolan Pope and Aaron Feudo.

People rely on their experiences to make important decisions. In making these decisions, individuals may be significantly influenced by when these experiences occur. Using administrative data, we study how the order in which students are assigned to required courses affects college major choices. We exploit a natural experiment at the United States Military Academy where students are randomly assigned to certain courses either during or after the semester in which they are required to first select a college major. We find that when students are assigned to a course in the same semester as they select a major, they are over 100 percent more likely to choose a major that corresponds to that course. In spite of very low switching costs, a significant fraction (approximately 40 percent) of the effect persists through graduation. Our results suggest that the timing of when students are assigned to courses has a statistically and economically significant effect on major choice. We explore a number of potential mechanisms for our results and find that students' initial choices are best explained by models of salience and availability. Furthermore, our results suggest that once students have selected a major, they are far less likely to switch away from that major than the standard model of economic choice would suggest and are consistent with the endowment effect.


The Effects of Behavioral Interventions on Consumer Protection Utilization.With Benjamin Castleman and William Skimmyhorn.

In this study we test whether behaviorally-motivated informational interventions can lead individuals to utilize consumer financial protections. Specifically, we use a large-scale randomized controlled trial to test whether gain/loss framing and reminder messaging can lead servicemembers in the United States Army to utilize an interest-rate protection outlined in the Servicemember Civil Relief Act (SCRA). While we find that reminder messaging increases engagement with informational materials, we find no differences in engagement across gain and loss framing. Furthermore, we find that information provision has no effect on servicemember credit outcomes, regardless of how SCRA protections are framed or whether email reminders are sent. We run a second experiment to explore what factors may be limiting the efficacy of our interventions and find that low engagement with emails and significant attrition throughout the application process are likely to contribute to our results.


Ongoing Projects

“The Effects of Email Prompts and Targets on Savings Contributions.” With Tatiana Homonoff, Jacob Goldin, and William Skimmyhorn.

“Actively Choosing How to Use Post 9-11 GI-Bill Benefits. Evidence from the Field. ” With Benjamin Castleman, Francis Murphy, and William Skimmyhorn.

“Parental Absence and Human Capital Development: Evidence from Quasi-Random Deployments.” With Andrew Johnston and David Lyle.