Deep ethnic and socioeconomic gaps in the access and quality of education are pervasive in the United States. Many of these inequalities are at least partly determined by a historical legacy of exclusionary public institutions, the vestiges of which continues to be felt today. In particular, three key contemporaneous education policy issues -- public school segregation on the basis of race, the emergence of a potentially predatory for-profit college sector, and unequal college access for minorities -- are all directly connected to public institutions. In this thesis, I present empirical studies on the role and effect that institutions have in determining these gaps, with varying focus on mechanisms and causal effects across these different policy topics.
In Chapter 1, I study school attendance boundary policy, the most common student allocation mechanism in U.S. public schools, and its relationship to school racial segregation. I ask: given existing patterns of residential segregation, what do existing school attendance boundaries reveal about local government's preferences over school integration? Using a novel database on the attendance boundary maps of hundreds of school districts, I define a desegregation policy index based on simple counterfactual attendance boundary maps. Exploiting this index, I find wide heterogeneity in the extent to which districts choose to desegregate their school systems by gerrymandering boundaries. I develop a theory of school attendance boundary choice, based on a trade-off between racial integration and aggregate daily commuting distance to school. I propose a methodology to estimate the extent of this trade-off, using geographic census data on the spatial distribution of race. Estimating a model of desegregation policy level as a function of marginal commuting costs, I find evidence of district demand for racial integration. In addition, I find that court desegregation orders and greater levels of racial tolerance among local whites act as positive shifters of desegregation demand. These findings have far reaching policy implications, the most important being that the tools developed here allow researchers to better monitor local governments' policies. I close this chapter with a case study evaluating of the stability of desegregation policy with respect to endogenous residential sorting, finding high residential compliance rates and little real estate valuation effects stemming from sudden changes in attendance boundary policy.
Chapter 2, joint work with Christopher Walters, studies how different structures in post-secondary education markets affect local student populations. For-profit college chains (FPCs) have rapidly expanded over the last two decades, opening almost 1,000 campuses across the U.S. First, we examine the determinants of FPC entry, finding that counties with worsening local unemployment and poverty rates are more likely to see the opening of an FPC campus. Then, exploiting variation in the timing of FPC entry, we estimate the impact of FPC entry on enrollment and degree completions. Using an event-study framework, our estimates show that FPC entry leads to increases in county-wide college enrollment and degree completions, with effects concentrated in short-term certificate programs. Additionally, we find little indication of negative enrollment effects at traditional public and non-profit private institutions, including community colleges. We interpret these findings as indication that for-profit chain colleges tend to enter markets facing excess demand for higher education, and that the extent to which they directly compete with traditional colleges is limited at best.
In Chapter 3, I zoom-in to a narrower topic, focusing on the issue of college access for undocumented high school students. Specifically, I estimate the impact of state level tuition equity reform on the educational outcomes of undocumented immigrant students in Texas. This type of reform, granting in-state tuition to qualifying undocumented students, can be interpreted as a partial relaxation of the institutional constraints associated with lack of legal immigration status. Exploiting administrative data from education agencies in Texas, I formulate a generalized differences-in-differences framework to produce within-school, across-cohort estimates of the impact of the 'Texas Dream Act' on a range of educational outcomes from college demand to college-bound investments during high school. Estimates show a significant closing of the college demand gap between immigrant and control group high school graduates. However, estimates regarding college-bound investments contain mixed results. I attribute this to a complex policy environment in public high schools during the analysis period. The results suggest that affordable college access policies can have a significant impact on the attainment of the immigrant population at the college entrance stage, but that, given other policies in place, college tuition incentives down the educational ladder may not be sufficiently salient to generate spillover effects.