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Small Differences that Matter: Mistakes in Applying to College

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  • Amanda Pallais

Abstract

This paper estimates the sensitivity of students' college application decisions to a small change in the cost of sending standardized test scores to colleges. Using confidential ACT micro data, I find that when the ACT increased from three to four the number of free score reports that ACT-takers could send, the fraction of test-takers sending four reports rose substantially while the fraction sending three fell by an offsetting amount. Students simultaneously sent their scores to a wider range of colleges. Using micro data from the American Freshman Survey, two identification strategies show that ACT-takers sent more college applications and low-income ACT-takers attended more selective colleges after the cost change. The first strategy compares ACT-takers before and after the cost change, controlling for time trends and covariates, and the second estimates difference-in-difference regressions using SAT-takers as a control group. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that by inducing low-income students to attend more selective colleges, the policy change significantly increased their expected earnings. Because the cost of sending an additional (non-free) ACT score was merely $6 throughout, this sizable behavioral change is surprising and suggests that students may use simple heuristics in making their application decisions. In such a setting, small policy perturbations can have large effects on welfare.

Suggested Citation

  • Amanda Pallais, 2013. "Small Differences that Matter: Mistakes in Applying to College," NBER Working Papers 19480, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:19480
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Sarah R. Cohodes & Joshua S. Goodman, 2014. "Merit Aid, College Quality, and College Completion: Massachusetts' Adams Scholarship as an In-Kind Subsidy," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 6(4), pages 251-285, October.
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    3. Behrman, Jere R & Rosenzweig, Mark R & Taubman, Paul, 1996. "College Choice and Wages: Estimates Using Data on Female Twins," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 78(4), pages 672-685, November.
    4. Monks, James, 2000. "The returns to individual and college characteristics: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 19(3), pages 279-289, June.
    5. Caroline Hoxby & Christopher Avery, 2013. "The Missing "One-Offs": The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 44(1 (Spring), pages 1-65.
    6. Stacy Berg Dale & Alan B. Krueger, 2002. "Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 117(4), pages 1491-1527.
    7. Scott Carrell & Bruce Sacerdote, 2017. "Why Do College-Going Interventions Work?," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 9(3), pages 124-151, July.
    8. Dominic J. Brewer & Eric Eide & Ronald G. Ehrenberg, 1996. "Does It Pay To Attend An Elite Private College? Cross Cohort Evidence on the Effects of College Quality on Earnings," NBER Working Papers 5613, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Loury, Linda Datcher & Garman, David, 1995. "College Selectivity and Earnings," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 13(2), pages 289-308, April.
    10. Christopher Avery & Thomas J. Kane, 2004. "Student Perceptions of College Opportunities. The Boston COACH Program," NBER Chapters,in: College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay For It, pages 355-394 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Dan A. Black & Jeffrey A. Smith, 2006. "Estimating the Returns to College Quality with Multiple Proxies for Quality," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(3), pages 701-728, July.
    12. Eric P. Bettinger & Bridget Terry Long & Philip Oreopoulos & Lisa Sanbonmatsu, 2012. "The Role of Application Assistance and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block Fafsa Experiment," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 127(3), pages 1205-1242.
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    Cited by:

    1. Hurwitz, Michael & Goodman, Joshua Samuel & Smith, Jonathan & Fox, Julia, 2015. "The relationship between siblings’ college choices: Evidence from one million SAT-taking families," Scholarly Articles 22805380, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
    2. Castleman, Benjamin L. & Owen, Laura & Page, Lindsay C., 2015. "Stay late or start early? Experimental evidence on the benefits of college matriculation support from high schools versus colleges," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 47(C), pages 168-179.
    3. Castleman, Benjamin L. & Owen, Laura & Page, Lindsay C., 2016. "Reprint of “Stay late or start early? Experimental evidence on the benefits of college matriculation support from high schools versus colleges”," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 51(C), pages 113-124.
    4. Adam M. Lavecchia & Heidi Liu & Philip Oreopoulos, 2014. "Behavioral Economics of Education: Progress and Possibilities," NBER Working Papers 20609, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Díez-Amigo, Sandro, 2014. "Improving the Access to Higher Education for the Poor: Lessons from a Special Admission Program in Chile," MPRA Paper 62915, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised 15 Aug 2014.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • I21 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Analysis of Education
    • I23 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Higher Education; Research Institutions
    • I24 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Education and Inequality
    • J24 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Human Capital; Skills; Occupational Choice; Labor Productivity

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