Over the last few years I have noted a significant trend in provincial government spending across Canada, one which we termed “feed the student, starve the schools”. Basically, governments are a lot happier giving money to the children of middle-class voters students than they are to universities and colleges because there are more votes there. And besides, that way you can claim you’re doing something for access (even if the dollars are sometimes targeted inefficiently).
Well, OK. But access isn’t everything. Completion is at least as big a deal as access (more, if you go into debt to go to school but leave without that income-enhancing credential). And completion depends a lot on institutions having enough resources to support students in specific ways.
For proof, take a look at an enlightening paper by a trio of authors from UNC – Charles Clotfelter, Steven Hemelt and Helen Ladd; long-time readers may remember me citing Clotfelter’s very interesting work on American college athletics, which is also well worth checking out. They examine something called the Carolina Covenant program, which was meant to increase PSE access and completion for meritorious low-income youth (the US South is really big on merit aid for fairly obvious reasons). What was interesting about the program was that for the first three years (2004-2006), the program consisted solely of financial aid (the stipulations were complicated but in practice it amounted to a little over $1000 reduction in net tuition and borrowing); from 2007 onwards, it also contained a layer of non-financial supports as well. These included: peer mentoring, summer academic support, financial support for orientation, facilitating student-professor interactions, providing learning disability services, providing business clothing needs, etc.
Because there was a strict income cut-off for the program, the authors used a regression discontinuity approach (meaning a focus on individuals just above and just below the cut-off line, where the effects of family income and financial need are almost indistinguishable) as well as a difference-in-differences approach to look at the effects of the program in both time periods and compared the results.
The results were intriguing: among Covenant-eligible recipients prior to 2007 – that is, those who only received financial aid – there was no effect on the likelihood of graduating within four years. Among those from 2007 to 2010, however, they find “suggestive but not conclusive” evidence that the recipients’ completion rates rose by between five and eight percent. The authors are cautious in their language because a) the research design does not permit them to exclude the possibility that other non-related factors linked to the Great Recession might be at work and b) the discontinuity results hover around the edge of what standard significance tests, though other analytical techniques suggested stronger results.
One wouldn’t want to hang too much on one study, particularly one which has some significance issues. But it does echo the work of Angrist, Lang and Oreopoulos who found that a similar program (money plus academic/social supports) at the University of Toronto had beneficial effects whereas money or supports individually had none. The key lesson here is that improving student success requires not just financial aid, but also institutional supports. Allowing government support to institutions to erode through inflation, thereby putting these supports at risk, undercuts the entire purported rationale of financial aid.
That is, assuming the purpose of increased student aid is actually student success and not simple crude electoral calculations. Perhaps certain governments (say: Alberta and Ontario) can clear up any confusion by acting to support both students and institutions this budget season.