Working Papers

The Effect of Selective Public Research University Enrollment

Evidence from California


What are the benefits and costs of attending a selective public research university instead of a less-selective university or college? This study examines the 2001-2011 Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) program, which guaranteed University of California admission to students in the top four percent of California high school classes. Employing a regression discontinuity design, I estimate that ELC pulled 8 percent of marginally-admitted students into four “Absorbing” UC campuses from less-competitive public institutions in California. Those ELC compliers had lower SAT scores and family incomes than their eventual peers; almost half were under-represented minorities (URM), and 65 percent came from the state’s bottom SAT quartile of high schools. Nevertheless, marginally eligible students became more than 20 percentage points more likely to earn a university degree within 5 years, though URM and less prepared students became less likely to earn STEM degrees. Students’ net expected earnings conditional on university completion, major, and gender substantially increased across subgroups, and linked state employment records suggest an increase in URM students’ average early-career earnings.