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IES Grant

Title: A Collaborative Use of a State Longitudinal Data System: A Study of the Washington College Grant Program
Center: NCER Year: 2023
Principal Investigator: Unterman, Rebecca Awardee: MDRC
Program: Using Longitudinal Data to Support State Education Policymaking      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (07/01/2023 – 06/30/2026) Award Amount: $999,322
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305S230019

Co-Principal Investigator: Oliver, Daniel

Partner Institution: Washington Student Achievement Council

Purpose: This project will assess the effectiveness of the Washington College Grant (WCG) for increasing postsecondary access and attainment for low-income college students in Washington state and for improving equity in postsecondary education access and attainment for students from key demographic groups. The Washington state legislature has enacted the WCG as a need-based financial aid program to increase access to postsecondary education for Washington residents. The state intends for the program to increase the number of high school graduates and adults that attain a postsecondary credential that provides them with the qualifications needed to qualify for job opportunities in the state.

The project will answer these main research questions:

  • How was the WCG program implemented and how did this differ from prior support?
  • What is the extent to which the WCG was used by students from families with low incomes immediately after their students' high school graduation and throughout their postsecondary experience?
  • What is the pattern of postsecondary outcomes in the state for students from low-income families before and after the WCG program was implemented?
  • What is the effect of students' receipt of WCG funding on their postsecondary education outcomes? Does this relationship differ across funding levels?

Project Activities: The project team will begin by constructing the database necessary for assessing financial aid uptake, including WCG receipt, and conducting a document review to assess implementation of the WCG and other state financial aid programs available to Washington students. In the second stage of the project, they will draw on the results of the first stage activities to execute quasi-experimental analyses to answer key questions about the relationship between financial aid uptake and students' postsecondary outcomes for all students and for policy-relevant subgroups. At each stage of the project, they will share and review the analysis plan and findings with state administrators and policymakers. They will also share findings with the Washington state legislature and Governor's Office, other education-focused state agencies, and broader networks of policymakers and researchers.

Products: The project team will produce an implementation-focused WCG infographic, a web-posted report on findings from the access and attainment studies, and a peer-reviewed publication focused on the effects of WCG funding.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The project includes high schools and colleges throughout the state of Washington.

Sample: The overall sample includes approximately 640,000 students who graduated from public Washington state high schools from 2009 through 2024. Students from low-income families, from minority racial/ethnic backgrounds, and from families who do not speak English at home compose significant proportions of this sample. For example, of the 2019 graduates, 40 percent are free- or reduced-price lunch eligible, 55 percent are White, 30 percent are Hispanic, Black, Native American or Native Pacific Islander, 8 percent are Asian, and 20 percent speak a language other than English at home. The diversity of the project's sample will facilitate analyses of postsecondary access and attainment for the aforementioned subgroups.

Key Issue, Program, or Policy: The WCG is Washington state's primary need-based financial aid program for postsecondary education. The state invests approximately $460 million per year in the program and wants to ensure that the program is promoting increased postsecondary attainment and implemented in a manner that supports success for Washington's diverse college student population. Research Design and Methods: The researchers will use a mixed methods design that combines a qualitative analysis of WCG implementation, a descriptive analysis of WCG utilization, an interrupted time-series (ITS) analysis of changes in students' postsecondary outcomes trends after the introduction of WCG, and a regression discontinuity design (RDD) aiming to estimate WCG effects around specific aid eligibility thresholds. Each piece of the project will inform the others, with the implementation and utilization analyses providing critical context for the ITS and RDD analyses. The researchers will pay close attention to differences in learner outcome patterns for policy-relevant moderators such as students' race/ethnicity, high school urbanicity, and family income levels.

Control Condition: In the ITS analysis, students in the pre-WCG period compose the control condition. The RDD creates treatment and control groups from students' ratings on a measure of financial need in relation to predetermined eligibility cut points. In this analysis, students with ratings above the cut points serve as the control group, while students below the cut point are members of the treatment group. 

Key Measures: The key learner outcome measures for this study are postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and degree attainment. The researchers will also consider part-time/full-time enrollment, credits attempted, and credits earned toward a degree. They will also explore whether the program's learner outcomes are moderated by family income, gender, race/ethnicity, language nativity, high school grade point average, and the high schools' rural/urban classification.

Data Analytic Strategy: The researchers will employ a combination of inductive and deductive coding strategies to analyze the content of documents and targeted interviews that address implementation of the WCG. They will compute simple descriptive statistics to capture the utilization of WCG funding, overall and across key student subgroups. For the ITS analysis, the researchers will use covariate adjustments to compare outcome trends for approximately equivalent groups of learners before and after WCG implementation. For the RDD analysis, they will compare outcomes for students with family income levels within pre-determined bandwidths above and below the state's income cutoffs that determine WCG eligibility.

State Decision Making: WSAC will use the information gleaned from this study to recommend programmatic changes for improving WCG effectiveness in advancing equity in postsecondary access and attainment as well as the overall rate of postsecondary attainment for Washington residents. The project will inform state decision making regarding

  • Adjustments to program eligibility rules
  • Adjustments to award amounts by income level
  • Communication strategies that improve student and family utilization of the WCG program

Related IES Projects: Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Grant Program – Grants to Washington State: Washington State Longitudinal Data System Project (R372A090024), Washington State Plan for a PK-20 Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System (R384A100016), Washington State P20W Research and Data Exploration (R372A150019), Washington State P20W Studies in Educational Equity (R372A200022)