Essays on the economics of education and human capital
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This dissertation examines several facets of the current educational landscape in the United States and the impacts these characteristics have on individual outcomes. The first chapter examines high stakes exit exams, which are pervasive in the American education system and have the ability to impact students far beyond their earned scores. This chapter considers how exit exams in Texas impact student behavior and human capital formation before the end of high school. Employing a regression discontinuity framework, I examine the impact of failing the exam the first time it is administered for students within a small window of scores around the passing threshold. Considering behavioral responses to the administration of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), I study the impact on students' courses taken, attendance, and a set of disciplinary actions after the exam in the final year of high school. I find that, in line with a model of motivation with heterogeneous effects, students who fail do respond through an increase in the number of courses taken in their senior year, and find a smaller increase in disciplinary infractions. I then consider heterogeneity among student subgroups to discern whether the TAKS exam has differential impacts across different portions of the high school population in Texas. The second chapter quantifies the extent to which test scores and demographic variables account for the differing high school graduation rates between minority and white students in Texas. There are persistent, well documented gaps in both achievement on standardized tests and high school diploma receipt between minority students and their white peers. I employ a set of linear probability models to estimate the graduation gap for students who were eighth graders in Texas from 2003-2009 and examine specific sub-populations to try to disentangle some of the factors that could be contributing to these gaps. I find that student observable characteristics, especially test scores, can account for a substantial portion of this gap, which supports estimates in the previous literature. The third chapter of my dissertation examines how merit-based scholarships, instead of need-based financial aid, impact the decisions students make when enrolling in post-secondary education. Using the 2000 US Census data and American Community Survey data from 2001-2010, I evaluate the effect of merit scholarships in Tennessee on current college enrollment using difference-in-difference estimation. In contrast to the estimated effects of merit scholarships in Georgia, the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship does not seem to impact student behavior; estimates are mildly negative but not statistically different from zero considering the whole population of youth ages 16-26, traditional college enrollees ages 18-19, or older students aged 20-22. I argue these estimates are in line with many more recent findings examining merit scholarship programs. Finally, I employ a synthetic control method to compare these estimates with more traditional estimation strategies.