Panel Paper: The Causal Effect of Receiving College Credit in High School on Collegiate Outcomes

Saturday, November 8, 2014 : 4:30 PM
Brazos (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Michael Drew Hurwitz1, Jonathan Smith1 and Christopher Avery2, (1)The College Board, (2)Harvard University
Stagnant completion rates and increasing time-to-degree (Bound, Lovenheim, and Turner, 2010; 2012) in a time of high unemployment, budgetary crises, and increasing federal grant aid (College Board, 2013a) have put colleges under increased public scrutiny. One potential way to ameliorate this problem is to give students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school, which is typically accomplished either through dual enrollment or Advanced Placement (AP) programs. These widely accepted policies allow students to accumulate credit towards graduation and to bypass introductory courses while freeing up time to fulfill both major and general education requirements. In theory, students who take advantage of these college policies may have an increased likelihood of completing college on-time. In addition, depending on the path into and through college, these policies may also affect whether a student even graduates. This paper is the first to find the causal effect of receiving college credit while in high school on such outcomes.

To evaluate the impact of early receipt of college credit, we exploit the previously unavailable data on the underlying AP exam continuous raw scores that map into the integer scores.  These additional data lend themselves to a regression discontinuity design whereby we compare nearly identical students, as demonstrated with both McCrary density tests and covariate balancing tests, just above and just below the thresholds of each integer score. The student just above the threshold may receive the associated benefits of receiving a higher AP score, which may include college admission, placement, credit, completion, or even the psychological benefits of positive affirmation. 

Using the universe of AP test takers between 2004 and 2009, we start with a meta-analysis of the effects of each potential threshold on each exam.  Overall, we find no evidence that attaining a score of a 2 over a 1 confers any advantages in terms of college choice, graduation rates, or time-to-degree.  However, for students who receive a 3 over a 2, a score that is typically accompanied by college credit, we find that students are more likely to complete college in four years. This effect is primarily driven by the most popular exams, which include U.S. History, Calculus AB, English Language, and English Literature, in part because most colleges grant credit on these exams.  We see similar results on the 3/4 threshold, likely because some colleges require students to earn scores of 4 or 5 to receive credit.  There are no discernible effects on the 4/5 threshold.