Model of a Cabin


Examining the college premium

Higher education is widely understood to be a major driver of intergenerational mobility in the United States. Despite the clear (and growing) inequalities between and within colleges, it remains the case that higher education reduces the impact that parental class position has on a graduate’s life outcomes.

In an intriguing paper, associate professor of economics at Harvard XIANG ZHOU scrutinizes the implied causal relationship between college completion and intergenerational mobility. Specifically, Zhou uses a novel weighting method “to directly examine whether and to what extent a college degree moderates the influence of parental income” outside of selection effects, seeking to distinguish between the “equalization” and “selection” hypotheses of higher ed’s impact on intergenerational mobility.

From the paper:

“Three decades have passed since Hout’s (1988) discovery that intergenerational mobility is higher among college graduates than among people with lower levels of education. In light of this finding, many researchers have portrayed a college degree as ‘the great equalizer’ that levels the playing field, and hypothesized that an expansion in postsecondary education could promote mobility because more people would benefit from the high mobility experienced by college graduates. Yet this line of reasoning rests on the implicit assumption that the ‘college premium’ in intergenerational mobility reflects a genuine ‘meritocratic’ effect of postsecondary education, an assumption that has rarely, if ever, been rigorously tested.

In fact, to the extent that college graduates from low and moderate-income families are more selected on such individual attributes as ability and motivation than those from high-income families, the high mobility observed among bachelor’s degree holders may simply reflect varying degrees of selectivity of college graduates from different family backgrounds.”

In sum, Zhou finds that the “selection” hypothesis carries more weight than the “equalization” hypothesis. One implication of this finding is that “simply expanding the pool of college graduates is unlikely to boost intergenerational income mobility in the US.” Link to the paper.

  • A 2011 paper by Michael Bastedo and Ozan Jaquette looks at the stratification dynamics affecting low-income students within higher ed. Link. A paper from the same year by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski surveys the state of inequality in postsecondary education. Link.
  • An op-ed by E. Tammy Kim in the Times argues for higher-education as a public good. Link.
  • Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Margetta Morgan’s 2018 paper examines the student debt crisis in the broader context of labor market trends: “Reliance on the college earnings premium [as a measure of success] is that it focuses primarily on the individual benefit of educational attainment, implying that college is worthwhile as long as individuals are making more than they would have otherwise. But in the context of public investment in higher education, we need to know not only how individuals are faring but also how investments in higher education are affecting our workforce and the economy as a whole.” Link.


How childcare impacts women’s participation in the labor market

University of Rochester PhD candidate and soon to be assistant professor of economics at Temple University VIVIANE SANFELICE studies development economics with a focus on the public sector. In a 2018 working paper, she examines the effect of childcare accessibility on women’s labor force participation rates by comparing outcomes for mothers of children from different age groups in Brazil.

From the abstract:

“My findings show that the availability of formal childcare allows mothers to join the job market. Among women sensitive to the availability of free care, three fourths of their employment rate is explained by whether or not they obtain a public slot. This matches the dominant finding of the literature to date: maternal employment is most responsive to childcare expansion in contexts where either it or alternative childcare providers are low prior to the intervention.”

Link to the paper, and to Sanfelice’s website.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way:


  • Call for fellowship applications: “The Jain Family Institute is seeking a research fellow in ethics, law, human rights, and/or international relations to support our work with a major international agency on the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence.” See more on our site.
  • Call for seminar participants: JFI fellow Pascale Mevs will be hosting a free seminar series this fall and winter, titled “Social and Economic Mobility in NYC: Intersections of Research, Policy, and Practice.” Click here for more info, and here to apply.
  • On the blog: part two of Max Kasy’s thoughts on the politics of machine learning. Link.
  • The US faces not one, but many opioid crises, according to new research by Shannon Monnat, David Peters, Mark Berg, and Andrew Hochstetler. Link.
  • On monopsony and wages in the world’s fastest growing economies: Wyatt Brooks, Joseph Kaboski, Yao Amber Li, and Wei Qian find that concentrated market power “lowers the labor share by up to 10 percentage points in China and 15 percentage points in India.” Link.
  • A big report from the OECD asks, “Can Social Protection Be an Engine for Inclusive Growth?” The report has many examples of the impacts of cash transfers, both conditional and unconditional, and notes, “Cash transfers have proliferated, particularly in low- and middle-income countries; over 130 countries use direct, regular and noncontributory cash payments as income support and poverty reduction strategies central to their social protection systems.” Link.
  • “The richest American men live 15 years longer than the poorest men, while the richest American women live 10 years longer than the poorest women.” From the Health Inequality Project. Link.
  • A database on the history of the Indian Ocean. Link.
  • “The most recent data indicates that American households are about $14 trillion in debt. The interest being paid back on all of this debt is preventing people from making new purchases. But household spending comprises 17% of total spending in the economy, and rich households hold most of their income in savings. As low and middle income families pay back their debts, we not only see declining living standards, but we also see the opening for another recession.” An interview with Steven Pressman. Link.
  • Debating Spinoza’s political philosophy: Hasana Sharp reviews Christopher Skeaff’s Becoming Political. Link.
  • The Poor People’s Moral Budget: A substantial new report edited by Barnes, Koshgarian, and Siddique emphasizes “decent and affordable housing, free public education, a robust social safety net and social security, and sustainable job creation.” The report cites Darity and Hamilton on a job guarantee rather than arguing for a guaranteed income (though it also emphasizes expansion of the safety net by other means). Link.
  • Fascinating report on the banking crisis unfolding in Libya. Link.
  • “This paper studies the effect of punishment severity on jury decision making using archival data from London’s Old Bailey Criminal Court from 1772 to 1871. We exploit two natural experiments in English history, resulting in sharp decreases in punishment severity: the offense-specific abolition of capital punishment and the temporary halt of penal transportation during the American Revolution. Using difference-in-differences to study the former and a pre-post design for the latter, we find a large, significant, and permanent impact on jury behavior: juries are more likely to convict overall and across crime categories. Moreover, the effect size differs with defendants’ gender.” By Anna Bindler and Randi Hjalmarsson. Link. ht Jennifer Doleac.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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