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A Randomized Controlled Trial of Providing Up-Front Performance Incentives for Instructors and Students in Community Colleges

This well-conducted RCT found that providing performance-based incentives to community college instructors led to an increase in student exam scores, but not graduation rates.

Grantee: University of California San Diego. The full study report is posted here.

Description of the Intervention: Performance incentives were provided to instructors and students at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana during the 2016 – 17 school year. In phase 1 (fall 2016), instructors were provided an upfront bonus. If students exceeded pre-established performance targets, instructors earned an additional payment, while failure to meet the targets resulted in instructors repaying a portion of their upfront bonus. On average, final instructor bonuses were $662. In phase 2 (spring 2017), some students were additionally incentivized by the offer of a voucher for free tuition for one summer course (an approximately $400 value) if they met the performance target on the end-of-course exam. As with the instructor incentives, these vouchers were provided upfront, but students lost the voucher if they did not meet the performance target.

Study Design: Over the course of the 2016 – 17 school year, a total of 134 instructors were randomly assigned to either i) a treatment group which received incentives or ii) a control group which did not. In phase 2, a second level of randomization was added, resulting in 6,066 student observations 1 across four total treatment arms: i) instructor and student incentives, ii) instructor incentives only, iii) student incentives only, and iv) a pure” control group that was offered no incentives.

The study’s pre-specified primary outcomes were student performance on an objective, externally designed end-of-course exam, and associate degree attainment, as measured by National Student Clearinghouse data. 

Impact on the Primary Outcome: The study found that instructor incentives had a positive, significant impact on students’ exam scores (specifically, student exam scores were 0.160.21 standard deviations higher in the group that received just instructor incentives than the control group). No significant effects were detected for the combined incentives group or the student incentives group. 

The study did not find that either performance incentive, or the combination of both incentives, led to an effect on student graduation rates (graduation rates were approximately 38% in the control group and 39% for students enrolled in a course offering an incentive).

Study Quality: Based on careful review, we believe this was a well-conducted study which produced valid results. 2

  1. 1

    There were 3,575 unique students included in the study sample. Some students were enrolled in multiple courses included in the study. However, randomization was done at the instructor level and there are a number of unique students with multiple observations across the dataset.

  2. 2

    For example, the study had successful random assignment (as evidenced by highly similar treatment and control groups), minimal sample attrition, and valid analyses that were appropriately pre-specified.