A team of Chinese education researchers

Research and policy improve equity among college students in China

Recent CSHPE doctoral graduate Xiaoyang Ye was curious about why low-income and other disadvantaged students make what he calls “sub-optimal choices in their K–12 to higher education pathways.” These choices can lead to college undermatch, which is a tendency for well-qualified students, often with less affluent backgrounds, to not be matched with competitive colleges. Ye’s work has practical implications for students in the USA, China, and beyond, who want to improve their educational opportunities. It can guide the work of researchers, policymakers, and school leaders who seek to advance equity in students’ learning opportunities and outcomes.

In his research, Ye has taken a comparative and global approach, since these critical problems face students locally and worldwide. He leverages behavioral economics, school policy, field experiments, big-data methods, and deep research-practice collaboration to improve college access and choice for these disadvantaged students, explaining, “College undermatch is pervasive worldwide, but we still lack a unified, scalable solution.” His large-scale project—for which he won a Spencer Dissertation Award—aims to uncover which interventions succeed in the face of China’s unique centralized admissions system, and to provide assistance to improve opportunities for China’s students with lower socioeconomic status. He and his team call this The Bright Future of China Project.

Just as Ye’s work is impactful, it is also timely. It was only recently that scholars determined that misinformation and sub-optimal decisions were major behavioral barriers for lower-income high schoolers during their transition to college. Knowing this, Ye took the rare step of expanding that line of inquiry into centralized college admissions systems and developing countries. From 2016 to 2018, the Bright Future of China Project set up large-scale randomized experiments in Ningxia, one of the least wealthy provinces of China. Through their work, they improved college access and match levels for about 30,000 students in that province.

Now, Ye’s work contributes to undermatch literature and policy efforts by providing new evidence on behavioral policy interventions that improve college access, choice, and match at scale for disadvantaged students. “We have received many successful admissions results from our treated kids,” he said. Expanding beyond Ningxia, the team has now worked with approximately 100,000 high school graduates across China, giving them individual expert advice about their college search. They found that their advising program increased college admissions by 13 percentage points, and that it improved the ranking of the college to which students were accepted by 11 percentile points.

Ye’s work was informed by his coursework in CSHPE. “Thanks to the flexibility of individually designed coursework,” he says, “I received intensive training in education, economics, and public policy. As far as the breadth and depth, the coursework has prepared me in theory, policy contexts, and in research methods to conduct cutting-edge education policy research domestically and internationally.” In particular, he explains that his courses in advanced quantitative methods empowered him to conduct large-scale randomized controlled experiments, while education policy courses enabled him to closely follow the literature on college undermatch, so that he could expand his own line of inquiry and contribute to literature and worldwide policy efforts.

Faculty members Susan Dynarski and Stephen DesJardins made an impact in advancing his work toward an international stage. “Sue Dynarski has been the best dissertation chair that I could hope for,” says Ye. “I have gained every expertise that is needed for conducting modern cutting-edge research as well as for teaching the next generation of education policy professionals.” As for DesJardins, Ye acknowledges the impact of his mentorship. “Stephen DesJardins has provided me with countless hours of mentoring: he guided my coursework training, provided research collaboration opportunities, supervised my teaching of the advanced quantitative course (in which I experienced the largest added value to my teaching interests and skills), taught me to be a professional in the field of higher education, and aided my year-long job search.” Brian McCall, another lead of the DesJardins-McCall group, also provided tremendous guidance and support along the journey.

Ye’s future plans include increasing behavioral interventions and identifying strategies in student college choice. He is currently building the Chinese version of the U.S. government’s College Scorecard. He is also working on a college data ranking system that has already provided consultations to students across that country. Additionally, in line with his research and career goals, Ye is now working with his mentors at Princeton and Chicago (Adam Kapor, Chris Neilson, Seth Zimmerman) in developing AI-based advising systems to improve Pre–K and school choice among low-income families in New Haven, CT. In all, his ongoing work is expected to reach about one million low-income Chinese students and countless Americans.