Policy Careers Feb 1, 2016

There Is a Down­side to Increased Enroll­ment in High­er Ed

How open­ing the flood­gates can hurt the class­room experience.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Nicola Bianchi

Hav­ing more edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties should be a good thing for every­one, right? It is a boon for the stu­dents, who ben­e­fit from the increased access. And more broad­ly, it is a win for soci­ety, which ben­e­fits from a health­i­er and more skilled workforce.

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But experts dif­fer on just how — and how quick­ly — access should be increased. New research sug­gests that, at least in the short term, sharp enroll­ment hikes may hurt stu­dent learning.

The evi­dence comes from his­tor­i­cal data from Italy. In 1961, the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment enact­ed a sweep­ing edu­ca­tion reform that expand­ed access to sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, and math (STEM) degrees at state-run insti­tu­tions. In just a few years, the new pol­i­cy led to an abrupt increase in enroll­ment and in the diver­si­ty of the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion in these majors.

By ana­lyz­ing the records of stu­dents enrolled in STEM majors before and after the reform, the Kel­logg School’s Nico­la Bianchi uncov­ered some unin­ten­tion­al con­se­quences. Name­ly, the enroll­ment boom caused con­ges­tion in the affect­ed majors. The stu­dent – fac­ul­ty ratio sky­rock­et­ed, leav­ing stu­dents with less access to pro­fes­sors and teach­ing assis­tants. More­over, with stu­dents now com­ing from a broad­er range of back­grounds, there was more vari­a­tion in stu­dents’ lev­els of preparedness.

These fac­tors made learn­ing the rel­e­vant course mate­r­i­al more dif­fi­cult. And the drop in learn­ing affect­ed the finan­cial pre­mi­um asso­ci­at­ed with a STEM degree — even decades lat­er. Income for stu­dents who should have ben­e­fit­ed from the increased access to edu­ca­tion stayed large­ly flat, while income for stu­dents who had access to STEM majors pre reform actu­al­ly decreased.

Poli­cies may have indi­rect effects, which can decrease the ben­e­fits for tar­get­ed stu­dents or gen­er­ate neg­a­tive effects for oth­er students.”

Obvi­ous­ly, new poli­cies should bring ben­e­fits to the stu­dents,” says Bianchi, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of strat­e­gy. But what my research shows is that an edu­ca­tion sys­tem is a com­plex set­ting. Poli­cies may have indi­rect effects, which can decrease the ben­e­fits for tar­get­ed stu­dents or gen­er­ate neg­a­tive effects for oth­er stu­dents who shouldn’t have been affected.”

Autop­sy of an Edu­ca­tion Reform

To under­stand the data, you need a short primer in Ital­ian education.

There are three main types of high schools in Italy: aca­d­e­m­ic schools that pre­pare stu­dents for a uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion, pro­fes­sion­al insti­tutes that pre­pare stu­dents for direct entry into spe­cif­ic careers and voca­tions, and tech­ni­cal schools. Among tech­ni­cal schools, there are sev­er­al tracks, includ­ing the indus­tri­al track, which trains stu­dents for fields like mechan­ics, elec­tron­ics, biotech­nol­o­gy, and con­struc­tion; the com­mer­cial track, which pre­pares stu­dents for fields like account­ing; the lan­guage track; and the edu­ca­tion track.

Though some uni­ver­si­ty cours­es were open to a wide range of stu­dents, STEM cours­es had tra­di­tion­al­ly been restrict­ed to stu­dents who grad­u­ate from aca­d­e­m­ic schools. But Italy’s edu­ca­tion reform of 1961 opened STEM majors to stu­dents in indus­tri­al-track tech­ni­cal high schools (though not to stu­dents in oth­er tech­ni­cal schools). For three years, this access was still some­what restrict­ed by enroll­ment caps; by 1965 these caps were lifted.

The reform had an exag­ger­at­ed effect on stu­dent enroll­ment in a very short amount of time. Bianchi want­ed to know: Did the government’s rapid expan­sion of access to STEM majors affect how much stu­dents learned in the classroom?

He need­ed to be able to track stu­dents from high school through uni­ver­si­ty. So Bianchi vis­it­ed Milan, going from high school to high school and knock­ing on prin­ci­pals’ doors to glean access to thou­sands of stu­dent archives from 1958 – 1968. At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Milan, he cre­at­ed dig­i­tized records of uni­ver­si­ty tran­scripts for the same set of stu­dents. This allowed him to match up a giv­en student’s high school and uni­ver­si­ty records.

Few­er Resources, Less Learning

In order to deter­mine whether the influx of new stu­dents had affect­ed learn­ing, Bianchi com­pared the grades of aca­d­e­m­ic-track stu­dents in the years before and after the reform was imple­ment­ed. In oth­er words, he exam­ined the very stu­dents whom the reform should not have affect­ed. (Because assign­ments were not grad­ed on a curve, the let­ter grades stu­dents earned are a suit­able proxy for learning.)

Bianchi found that the grades of the aca­d­e­m­ic-track stu­dents got worse after the reform. Why did stu­dent learn­ing take such a hit? Bianchi’s evi­dence sug­gests an over­tax­ing of uni­ver­si­ty resources that hurt the class­room experience.

The decrease in learn­ing was par­tic­u­lar­ly steep after 1964, when all enroll­ment caps were final­ly removed — mean­ing that stu­dents would have had an even hard­er time seek­ing out teach­ers and teach­ing assis­tants because so many oth­er stu­dents were doing the same thing. And the drop in grades was most pro­nounced in cours­es where the mate­r­i­al would have been unfa­mil­iar to indus­tri­al-track stu­dents. In these cours­es, the stu­dent body would have been par­tic­u­lar­ly diverse in terms of lev­els of pre­pared­ness, like­ly mak­ing class­room instruc­tion or dis­cus­sion less effective.

The new stu­dents had a dif­fer­ent set of skills rel­a­tive to incum­bent stu­dents,” Bianchi says.

Long-Term Impacts

In his study, Bianchi also looked at the long-term impli­ca­tions of learn­ing less in the class­room. He linked the stu­dents’ records to their 2005 tax returns. How much mon­ey, he won­dered, were these for­mer stu­dents mak­ing now that they were in their fifties and sixties?

Stu­dents who grad­u­ate with uni­ver­si­ty STEM degrees can gen­er­al­ly expect to make more income than stu­dents who earn oth­er uni­ver­si­ty degrees. But notably, Bianchi found that for aca­d­e­m­ic-track stu­dents who attend­ed the uni­ver­si­ty when the majors were at their most con­gest­ed, the income pre­mi­um decreased.

Yes, sup­ply and demand is respon­si­ble for some of this decrease — after all, with more STEM grad­u­ates, there was sim­ply more com­pe­ti­tion for jobs.

But Bianchi’s mod­el esti­mates that three-quar­ters of the post-reform decline in income can be explained by the stu­dents’ poor­er uni­ver­si­ty expe­ri­ence, includ­ing the over­crowd­ed class­rooms and gen­er­al­ly less pre­pared classmates.

Bianchi also noticed some­thing else sur­pris­ing: some aca­d­e­m­ic-track stu­dents with an apti­tude for STEM actu­al­ly migrat­ed away from these majors after the reform — in favor of oth­er restrict­ed majors such as med­i­cine and law.

This tells us that the reform affect­ed major voca­tion choic­es of stu­dents the pol­i­cy­mak­ers did not want to alter at all,” Bianchi says. One of the big­ger con­tri­bu­tions of this paper is to iden­ti­fy that you could have neg­a­tive effects from an edu­ca­tion reform while the stu­dents are still in school, even before they enter the labor market.”

Explor­ing the Indus­tri­al Track

Over­all, Bianchi’s results sug­gest that the reform had neg­a­tive con­se­quences for aca­d­e­m­ic-track stu­dents. But what about the intend­ed ben­e­fi­cia­ries, the indus­tri­al-track stu­dents? How did they fare?

Bianchi com­pared the post-reform out­comes of indus­tri­al-track tech­ni­cal high school grad­u­ates, many of whom took advan­tage of the increased uni­ver­si­ty access, and com­mer­cial-track tech­ni­cal high school grad­u­ates, who were not includ­ed in the reform.

Rel­a­tive to the com­mer­cial-track stu­dents, those on the indus­tri­al track ini­tial­ly appeared to ben­e­fit from the reform, with long-term income increas­ing by near­ly 15%. But the gains did not last. After the enroll­ment cap was entire­ly lift­ed and the STEM majors expe­ri­enced over­crowd­ing, the ben­e­fit to indus­tri­al-track stu­dents dropped to 6% (an amount so small it could have occurred by chance).

That is, although these indus­tri­al-track stu­dents received more edu­ca­tion than the pro­fes­sion­al-track stu­dents, they did not actu­al­ly ben­e­fit finan­cial­ly from the extra education.

Lessons Learned

Bianchi’s work shows that dra­mat­ic edu­ca­tion­al pol­i­cy reforms can have con­se­quences that detract from their intend­ed goals.

When gov­ern­ments want to increase access to edu­ca­tion, Bianchi explains, often their solu­tion is to encour­age stu­dents into cer­tain fields in state-con­trolled uni­ver­si­ties. The Ital­ian exper­i­ment shows that this way of imple­ment­ing increased access can hurt stu­dent learn­ing — and long-term earnings.

Bianchi instead rec­om­mends a more focused approach to increas­ing access, such as iden­ti­fy­ing stu­dents who have a high apti­tude for STEM fields but who face bar­ri­ers to fur­ther­ing their education.

You might want to instead tar­get peo­ple that show promise, and give them vouch­ers or give them schol­ar­ships so they can choose their own majors,” Bianchi says. Schol­ar­ships would dri­ve stu­dents to spe­cif­ic uni­ver­si­ties; vouch­ers would allow stu­dents to attend the uni­ver­si­ty of their choice. Either option would strike a bet­ter bal­ance between increas­ing access and not over­tax­ing the resources of a few select col­leges or majors.

The research also high­lights the impor­tance of some ele­ments of the class­room envi­ron­ment — name­ly access to teach­ing fel­lows and pro­fes­sors, and the qual­i­ty of a student’s peers. Such fac­tors can tan­gi­bly affect how well stu­dents learn. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers who antic­i­pate that a new reform will boost enroll­ment should strong­ly con­sid­er hir­ing more instruc­tors to min­i­mize over­crowd­ing and help stu­dents who are less prepared.

If you increase the scope of the edu­ca­tion mar­ket, a lot of impor­tant chal­lenges must be thought through because they can have long-last­ing effects on the stu­dents involved,” Bianchi says.

About the Writer

T. DeLene Beeland is a science writer based in Asheville, NC.

About the Research

Bianchi, Nicola. 2015. “The Effects of Educational Expansions: Evidence from a Large Enrollment Increase in STEM Majors.” Working Paper.

Read the original

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