Starting Point: Teaching and Learning Economics > Teaching Methods > Undergraduate Research > The Effect of Race and Ethnicity on High School Graduation Rates in Florida

The Effect of Race and Ethnicity on High School Graduation Rates in Florida

Mary O. Borg, Professor of Political Economy, University of North Florida
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this independent research project, a senior student conducts a regression analysis to explore the determinants of high school graduation rates in Florida's school districts. This project can modified to be a group project.

Learning Goals

Through the project, by exploring the stages of the research process, students are exposed to skills satisfying each of Hansen's proficiencies.

Specifically, the students will:

  • Be able to explain why this research matters to stakeholders who are concerned about education policy.
  • Be able to clearly state a research question and a corresponding hypothesis.
  • Be able to critically evaluate and synthesize literature relevant to the research question.
  • Be able to obtain data from a variety of sources, manipulate the data and display it in Excel, transfer the data into a statistical software package such as SPSS or SAS, and conduct a linear regression analysis.
  • Be able to address the results in the context of the broader topic and present the results in written and oral form.
    (These goals were modified from those stated by Elizabeth Perry-Sizemore in her service learning/undergraduate research Starting Point examples.)

Context for Use

This example comes from an experience with an individual student who wrote a capstone thesis in public administration. Since capstone theses are written at the end of a student's program of study, the student had completed a policy analysis course and a research methods course. It would be a suitable final thesis topic for students majoring in economics, political science, sociology, or education. The project could be modified to be a group project in a research methods class or in an economics of education special topics course.

Description and Teaching Materials

Before beginning any individual research project with a student, it is a good idea to create a contract with the student that sets forth the student's responsibilities and the faculty mentor's responsibilities. This should include a timetable for completing various components of the research project such as the literature review, stating the thesis statement/research hypothesis, data gathering, data analysis, outline of the paper, first draft of the paper, etc. It is also a good idea to set up a regular meeting time with the student. Even good students can flounder when they are left too much on their own. We are lucky at the University of North Florida that students who wish to undertake an Honors thesis can enroll in a one hour thesis prospectus course that walks them through the beginning stages of a research project. A sample student contract is here: undergraduate research student contract (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Jul14 10). A copy of the syllabus for this one hour course is attached: Syllabus for One Hour Research Prospectus Course (Microsoft Word 565kB Oct6 09).

The literature review is the first task to be conducted when the student begins the project. It is easy for the student to become overwhelmed with the volume of information available on some topics. Therefore, it is a good idea to identify a few papers or a scholarly book for the student to read first. This accomplishes several objectives. First it identifies for the student the kind of scholarly articles that are appropriate for this type of project. Secondly, the references to those articles can be used for forward and backward searches of the literature using Google Scholar ( This site may be offline. ) or one of the many scholarly databases available at the library. Don't assume the students know how to do this. It is important to show students how to do an effective literature search. As an example, I identified a paper titled "High School Dropouts: A Review of Issues and Evidence," by Russell Rumberger in the Review of Educational Research as a good starting point for my student. Even though the article was rather old (published in 1987), it was a good review of the literature and could be used in a citation search for more recent articles.

Once the student is familiar with the literature, it is important for you to meet with him or her to discuss the research thesis. The student will probably come to you with a vague concept of his or her research project, but vague is the operative word, here. The student will need your help in refining a very specific research question that contains a testable hypothesis within it. My student chose this topic because she was interested in K-12 education issues, especially the achievement gap that exists between white students and minorities. She wanted to explore if the achievement gap between whites and minorities was due to race or if it had more to do with poverty. Together, we turned her personal interest into the following research questions:

1. What are the significant factors that influence a school district's graduation rate?

2. Do any of these factors interact with each other?

The student may also need some guidance in collecting data. Even if the data are available on-line or in the library, don't assume the students know how to access it. Don't assume you know how to access it, either! Solicit help from your research librarian. After calling the Florida Department of Education (FDOE), my student discovered that the data she needed on school district demographic statistics and graduation rates were available from the FDOE's yearly Return on Investment Report. The school districts include the 67 counties in Florida plus special school districts for the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind as well as the lab schools at several of the state universities. The data available on the web were tedious to collect because each school district was listed separately, which meant that the student had to go to over 67 websites and collect the variables she needed from each one. The student's phone call paid off because the person with whom she spoke volunteered to send her the data she needed in an Excel spreadsheet. This points out that asking others for help is a valuable part of the research process.

Once the data are obtained, students will also need help in transforming the raw data into functional variables in a regression analysis. This is often harder than it looks. They will probably have to recode several variables and/or create dummy variables from categorical variables. These things are second nature to us, but once again, don't assume that students know how to do this.

The student will need your help with the data analysis part of the project as well. They will have no problem running the regression analysis in one of the readily available statistical software packages, but interpreting the results is a whole different story! In my experience, it is a good idea to go over the computer printouts with the student in your office or somewhere where you have access to the data and the statistical software package. That way, when you look at the results with the student, you can ask if they tried entering the race variable or the age variable, etc., and if they haven't, you can try it right then. Using this trial and error method of model specification, allows the student to see that empirical research is sometimes as much of an art as a science.

What did the student conclude from her research? Like most researchers before her, she found that race still had a significant effect in her models even after controlling for poverty as measured by the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches. However, she did find that all minorities should not be lumped into one category. When she included a dummy variable that categorized all non-white and Hispanic students together, she found that the variable was negative and significant. However, when she included separate dummy variables for Asian, Hispanic, American Indian, African American, and Multiracial students, she found that there were large differences in the effects that each of these variables had on graduation rates. The Asian variable was positive and significant and the others were negative and significant, although the magnitudes of the negative effects were quite small for Hispanic students and quite large for African American students, with the negative effects for American Indian and multiracial students falling in between.

The student presented her results in the form of a final paper as well as a poster that was presented at UNF's annual Undergraduate Research Symposium.

undergraduate research student contract (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Jul14 10)
Syllabus for One Hour Research Prospectus Course (Microsoft Word 565kB Oct6 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

1. Undergraduate research does not have to be publishable in economics journals to be worthwhile. Most economists believe that their undergraduate students cannot participate in research because they don't have sophisticated econometric skills. That may be true if they are trying to publish in the Review of Economics and Statistics, but the benefit of undergraduate research is in doing it, not necessarily publishing it. That said, there are several outlets for student research.

2. Mentoring students in undergraduate research projects is a valuable teaching activity and it should be rewarded as such. Assisting students with research will not be successful on your campus unless it is rewarded. Many departments allow faculty to bank the number of independent studies they offer until the number reaches the typical number of students that they would have in a class. When the number reaches that level, the faculty member gets a course reduction. An even better model is to offer research mentoring classes as part of a faculty member's regular class load. Administrators need to put their money where their mouths are, if undergraduate research is going to be successful. At UNF, our Undergraduate Research Grants give faculty members $1000 to mentor a student. It's not much but it comes in handy during the summer. When it comes to promotion and tenure, departments should count mentoring students as both teaching and research. Many faculty members do manage to co-author papers with their students that get presented at conferences and published in peer reviewed journals.

3. The project can be modified for different learning environments. The project can be modified as a group project in a research methods class rather than an individual student's thesis. Classmates can divide the work into different working groups such as the subgroup that writes the literature review and the thesis statement, the subgroup that collects and formats the data and writes the IRB application (if necessary), the subgroup that runs the regression analysis. Then the entire group should come together to analyze the regression results and write parts of the paper and presents the results to the class.


Student understanding and implementation of the research process and achievement of Hansen's proficiencies is ascertained by the research proposal, report, and presentation, using Greenlaw's guidelines for preparing a research proposal and rubric for grading a research paper.

References and Resources

Greenlaw, S.A. (2006). Doing economics: A guide to understanding and carrying out economic research. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rumberger, R. (1987). High School Dropouts: A Review of Issues and Evidence. Review of Educational Research. 57: 101-121.