Essays in the Economics of Education and Health

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My professional interest as an economist resides in the measurement, analysis and refinement of policy. I am a pragmatist at heart -- most concerned with how best to achieve society's goals with limited resources -- but no policy exists in a vacuum, and so I cherish the contributions of economic theory in helping us to understand the complex ways that our policies fit into and shape existing institutions. My first essay, The Role of Fiscal Impacts in the Public School Response to Charter Competition,'' embodies my philosophy that policy research be rigorous and data driven while being shaped by economic thinking. Charter schools are a topic of great interest in education policy, and the effects of charter schools on their own students have been closely examined. By the nature of their limited capacity, however, the main role charter schools play in reforming education must be to shape the behavior of the public school system. My work aims to improve our understanding of the little-studied effects of charter competition on the reallocation of traditional public schools' resources. To the extent that existing work considers competition between charter schools and the traditional public school system, it implicitly assumes a uniform competitive pressure: losing more students to charter schools elicits a greater response from public schools. However, public schools are diverse institutions bound by tradition and history rather than the optimizing behavior that disciplines private firms in competitive markets -- and the state mechanisms that fund and regulate education are generally not rationalized to promote competition. In my first essay, I demonstrate that public schools' responses to charter competition display heterogeneity along a second dimension; districts that are more fiscally constrained by unavoidable costs are correspondingly muted in the degree to which they reallocate resources, even in the face of large losses of students. I make the case that in evaluating the effects of charter schools or school choice policies more generally, we must consider the degree to which public schools are willing and able to respond; a well-designed school education reform policy must provide both the means and the incentive to reform. In An Evaluation of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship's Effect on PhD production at Non-UNCF institutions'', joint with Sarah J. Prenovitz, Ronald G. Ehrenberg and George H. Jakubson, I study the effects of a high-profile fellowship program for under-represented minority students on the educational attainment of its beneficiaries. Evaluating this program presents two major challenges: first, we do not observe PhDs in progress. Second, the program was not designed for evaluation, and never collected the kind of rich data on individuals now used in many administrative settings. By obtaining data on the completions of all PhDs over a period of several decades, we estimate distributions of time-to-degree and use those to build projections of the PhDs that will eventually be completed from each undergraduate class. We also use the staggered inclusion of participating institutions into the fellowship program to obtain a counterfactual estimate of the program's effect. In the end we find no causal effect of the program on the educational attainment of its participants; although the rates of PhD completion are high outside of a causal analysis, the program may be targeted towards those students who are already most likely to complete doctoral degrees. My final chapter, ``Selection and Chronic Disease Research: The Seatbelt--Diabetes Link,'' is a tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale about statistical technique conceived while I was studying the epidemiological literature for a course in health economics. While many epidemiologists are now adapting current econometric techniques to the study of disease, I found too many studies in high-profile journals ignoring the behavioral aspects of chronic disease -- leading to the use of data or statistical techniques inadequate to control for the problems of self-selection that social scientists all too often face. Using a repeated cross-section of data on health behaviors and mimicking multivariate models found in the epidemiology literature, I demonstrate a spurious 'causal link' between seatbelt non-use and several chronic diseases. I further show that varying degrees of self-reported seatbelt non-use are able to generate a dose-response gradient in the risk for those diseases, a type of relationship often taken as evidence in support of a causal link. Finally I use variation in the dates of passage of different states' seatbelt laws to demonstrate that the connection between seatbelt non-use and risk of a diabetes diagnosis became stronger after the passage of laws mandating seatbelt use. This presents an additional problem even for experienced statisticians -- unknown events may alter the patterns of self-selection, interfering with the course of an existing studied treatment. Lest the point be missed, I take ample care to document that seatbelt non-users are less healthy than seatbelt users in every dimension, from the amount of fruit and vegetables they eat to their likelihood of seeing a doctor for regular check-ups.

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Education; Economics; Economics of Education; Economics of Health; Health; Higher Education; Education policy


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Ehrenberg, Ronald G

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Jakubson, George H
Mansfield, Richard K

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Ph. D., Economics

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Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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