Efforts to diversify the pipeline of students, graduates, and workers in in-demand STEM fields often start in. Data indicate there, but higher education can also be part of the solution. A recent working paper looks at the wide-ranging impact of one university’s work to bring promising students across the gap from high school to college.
An anonymous “elite technical university in the Northeast”—dubbed Host Institution (HI)—annually runs a number of summer STEM programs for rising high school seniors from across the country. The analysts used applicant data from 2014 to 2016 for three of these programs to study whether participation in them increased students’ likelihood of attending college and completing a degree in a STEM field.
All applicants were highly motivated (the application materials were voluminous and the process lengthy and detailed) and high achieving (submissions included course grades and test scores), so this is not a typical population. The most-intensive program is also pricey, although HI paid for everything but student transportation. The university’s goal was to induce promising candidates—specifically, young people who might fail to matriculate due to—to make the leap to college and to choose HI. More than 2,000 students applied to the summer programs each year, far more than could be accommodated. Officials gave priority to eligible applicants who would be the first in their family to attend college, who hailed from families without science and engineering backgrounds, who attended high schools that historically sent less than 50 percent of their graduates to four-year colleges, who attended high schools that “presented challenges for success” at elite universities (rural, low-income, etc.), or who were members of a group underrepresented in STEM (Black, Hispanic, or Native American). Priority was also given to students from certain regions of the country typically underrepresented at HI. Gender balance in each program was imposed, as well.
All this effort produced a group of 600 to 750 underrepresented students in each of the three years, still more than the slots available. The top-ranked students were guaranteed a slot but randomly assigned to either a six-week on-campus residential experience, a one-week residential camp, or a six-month online program concluding with a single-day campus visit in the summer. The lower-ranking students were randomly assigned to either the remaining slots in the online program or to the control group (i.e., those not receiving a slot). Both treatment and control students were observed for five years following the summer session.
In terms of college enrollment, almost all applicants enrolled in a four-year college within one year of high school graduation. That includes 87 percent of the control group—those who were not offered a slot in HI’s summer programs—likely reflecting the high-achieving, highly-motivated nature of the students applying. The treatment group upped that percentage by approximately 3 points. While 8 percent of the control group ultimately enrolled in HI, attendance in any of the three summer programs increased that percentage—an additional 17 percentage points for the six-week program, 5 points for the one-week program, and 4 points for the online program. The summer programs also induced a shift in enrollment toward higher quality colleges. Enrollment at any of Barron’s most competitive institutions (including HI) was boosted by a statistically significant gain of 17 percentage points for those offered a slot in the six-week program, by 14 points for the one-week program, and by 10 points for the online program.
As for degree completion, 53 percent of control group students graduated from college within four years of high school graduation, 8 percentage points higher than the national average in that period but lower than might have been expected for such a motivated population. Meanwhile, between 56 and 61 percent of students offered summer program slots all those years earlier did the same. The highest completion rates were for those offered slots in the two residential programs, mainly driven by graduates from HI. Around 80 percent of the degrees earned within four years by the treatment group were in STEM fields, more than 12 percentage points higher than in the control group, with most of the increase driven by degrees earned from HI itself.
While the pre-program motivation of students in the study cannot be discounted, the analysts conclude that being offered a spot in the university’s summer programs boosted the college-related human capital of these high school students, most of whom came from families and/or schools with little such capital of their own. This made it easier for them not only to apply to HI, but also to similarly competitive institutions and to complete STEM degrees. The structure of the six-week summer program especially—designed to mimic a compressed freshman year at HI—was seen as important to turn motivation into access and academic success. There is a brief discussion of costs at the end, noting that HI pays all expenses except for transportation to and from the university, which range from a hefty $15,000 per student in the six-week program to less than $2,000 per student for the online program. The analysts stop short of a full-blown cost-benefit analysis, however, leaving that to future research. The results are promising, but scalability and generalizability are still hard questions that need answers.
SOURCE: Sarah R. Cohodes, Helen Ho, and Silvia C. Robles, “,” NBER Working Papers (July 2022).