Economic research


Research areas


The price of college

People who grow up poor, regardless of test scores and grades, are still less likely to graduate from college than their richer peers. Gaps in college completion have widened at the same time that the price of college has skyrocketed. One arrow in the policy quiver is need-based financial aid for college students. My work has added a few unique contributions to the large literature on financial aid. Designers of financial aid programs often cannot change their overall budgets. What they can change is how they communicate and how they allocate the resources available to them.

In a new working paper I find that technical college students in Wisconsin benefited from state-funded financial aid, even if they already received large amounts of federal aid. This work highlights the dire financial need of some adult students.

My article in Economics of Education Review with Sara Goldrick-Rab examines a program that has the same qualifications as the federal Pell Grant, but that is randomly assigned to a group of two-year college students in Wisconsin. We find that implementation struggles hindered the effectiveness of the program in its first year of operation. With Katharine M. Broton and Robert Kelchen we follow up on the same grant program, focusing on four cohorts of University of Wisconsin students, and find additional evidence that program implementation matters for the results. 

Grant allocation decisions can benefit from research evidence that goes beyond estimating average effects to finding which types of students financial helps most. I provide new evidence on this question in a broader study of the Wisconsin Grant program, described here. I am also working on a study of the Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) program in New Jersey, with Melanie Zaber.

Making college more affordable can impact more than just graduation rates. It can affect where students live, work, and start families after college, but without data it’s difficult to study these questions. A pilot program is helping to link local data sets to the Census Bureau data infrastructure, broadening what we can learn about college students in the economy.

I'm working on a series of infographics showing trends in FAFSA filing over the past decade, and projecting these trends into the future. This work is funded by the US 2050 Initiative.

Financial education and decision making

There is an ongoing debate about whether people are generally well informed when making financial decisions (often they are not), and whether financial education can help inform them (only if cleverly delivered and well-targeted).

A RAND working paper (covered at the Brookings Chalkboard) with Johnathan G. Conzelmann and T. Austin Lacy surveys the state of financial knowledge among American college students. Students have low levels of financial literacy, but those who borrow appear to understand borrowing terms significantly better than non-borrowers, suggesting that our processes for informing borrowers are working.

A working paper (embargoed for now) with J. Michael Collins and Sara Goldrick-Rab reports the results of a field experiment directly testing if informing borrowers is working, by comparing different methods of student loan entrance counseling implemented at a for-profit online university.

A working paper with J. Michael Collins evaluates a workplace financial education effort to increase women's retirement savings. 

For high school students considering college, their parents' income is the most important determinant of how much financial aid they can qualify for. A shorter working paper with Janet K. Holt checks high school students' knowledge of their parents' income, by comparing students' survey responses to information from tax returns. 

Quantitative methodS

Coming soon! Paper, software, and a new method for assessing the generalizability of results from regression discontinuity designs, with Beth Tipton.

PUBlic Finance

As a public economist, I study markets where the government and non-profits play a large role, like education and healthcare. I'm also interested in how people respond to government policies regarding benefits and taxation.

With RAND economist Matthew D. Baird and RAND demographer Robert Bozick, I am working on a series of two papers drawing on a new survey of American workers to define the STEM workforce. Asking workers how they use STEM skills in their jobs provides a different picture than if you ask experts which occupations are STEM. The differences manifest in gender gaps, wage gaps, and the size of the STEM workforce (RAND working paper). We also ask why workers trained in STEM fields have decided to work in STEM or to leave STEM (paper coming soon).

My study of private college endowment funds making tough decisions after the financial crisis is published in Education Finance and Policy.

Financial aid for college, much like other social benefits based on income, creates implicit taxes. If you earn more, you qualify for less aid. This can create a disincentive to work, which is especially pronounced at "kink points" where implicit tax rates increase. I am studying responses to these kink points with RAND economist Patricia K. Tong. 

The Colbert Report announced: "Social Security checks are going paperless. 'Cause if there's one thing seniors are good at, it's online banking!" With coauthors J. Michael Collins of UW-Madison, and Alexander Strand of the Social Security Administration, I looked into the possible effects of this change. The paper is published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs

The United States outlaws payments for organ donations, but there is a kind of market for live kidney donations nonetheless, a market where the price paid by patients is the wait time for a kidney from a deceased donor. People considering giving kidneys are sensitive to this price too, because the patients paying the price are their friends and loved ones. Using state laws as an instrument for the supply of deceased donor kidneys, I find that living donations of kidneys are responsive to price.