Wednesday, March 24, 2021
In a pilot program during the 2016-17 admissions cycle, the University of California, Berkeley invited many applicants for freshman admission to submit letters of recommendation. We use this pilot as the basis for an observational study of the impact of submitting letters of recommendation on subsequent admission, with the goal of estimating how impacts vary across pre-defined subgroups. Understanding this variation is challenging in observational studies, however, because estimated impacts reflect both actual treatment effect variation and differences in covariate balance across groups. To address this, we develop balancing weights that directly optimize for "local balance'' within subgroups while maintaining global covariate balance between treated and control units. We then show that this approach has a dual representation as a form of inverse propensity score weighting with a hierarchical propensity score model. In the UC Berkeley pilot study, our proposed approach yields excellent local and global balance, unlike more traditional weighting methods, which fail to balance covariates within subgroups. We find that the impact of letters of recommendation increases with the predicted probability of admission, with mixed evidence of differences for under-represented minority applicants.