Economy of Research

Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Harvard, answers the call for higher standards in education research.
February 8, 2006

“I evaluate educational policies -- particularly ones that have to do with money,” says Caroline Hoxby, a professor of economics at Harvard University and director of the Economics of Education Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. “I think the quantitative analysis being done today is of much higher quality than ever before.”   

On Tuesday, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education-focused think tank in Washington, announced that Hoxby will receive this year’s Fordham Prize for Distinguished Scholarship. The foundation bestows this honor annually on a scholar “who has made major contributions to education reform via research, analysis and successful engagement in the war of ideas.”

Since 1994, Hoxby has worked on a number of research projects, including an examination of how financial aid decisions affect students' college choices and explorations of relationships between elementary and secondary education and higher education.

The professor came to national prominence in 2000 when she published “Does Competition Among Public Schools Benefit Students and Taxpayers?” in the American Economic Review. Written in the language of economists, the work still found a broader audience and took center stage in the nation’s K-12 school choice debates.

Teacher unions have found her work particularly disagreeable, but, says Hoxby, “I like to stay out of politics and to do my research. I have to be focused on what’s good for students. And as a scientist, I’m interested that we do education research particularly well.”

On the occasion of her award, Inside Higher Ed interviewed Hoxby on her idea of what “higher standards in higher education research” actually means.

Q. How has your background in economics affected your education research?

A. I come from a background of both public and labor economics, and education is a natural area to analyze if you come from these two areas. When I started working in this area [in 1994], hardly any economists were interested in it. I was one of the first people to be called an “economist of education.”  It just wasn’t a traditional area. Many economists didn’t know the institutional details in education. You can’t analyze colleges and not have a good sense of what goes on. One of the reasons for this is that there are a lot of institutions.… It’s very different from learning the institutional details of, say, Social Security, where all you have to learn is one system.    

Q. Economics aside, what do you think the overall picture is of higher education research today?

A. Well, I think it’s much better than even 10 years ago. We have better data. But there are some things that are still very hard to analyze in higher education. It’s hard for us to observe outcomes.  I can’t look at the U.S. Census and know what type of college each student attends. We still are in a situation where there are many questions that we’d like to answer and we have the statistical skills to answer them. But we don’t have all the data.

Q. Is quantitative data more important than qualitative?  

A. I’m a quantitative person myself, so I think it’s a mistake to only do qualitative analysis.  But, as a person who is also an educator, I don’t think numbers summarize everything that goes on in an institution of higher education. I tend to think they’re complementary to each other. But I also think that if you don’t have some hard numbers, you don’t tend to ask some hard questions. In general, adding more quantitative analysis has been really useful to higher education.

Q. Do you think that economists tend to do a better job at higher education research than do others, like, say, humanities researchers?

A. We each tend to bring our own methodological strengths to the analyses. I do think economists do probably do a better job at understanding the finances of higher education … and we tend to be good at seeing the similarities between institutions of higher education and other types of organizations. But I’m not under the impression that we do the best job -- we ought to do what we’re good at doing.

Q. Is there a need for a higher standard of education research in the United States?

A. Yes, I think we’ve had a really low standard in the past.  What we need to have is a situation that is a lot more like the sorts of standards that we have in other fields of scientific inquiry or medicine.  At a minimum, we should get to the sort of standards of evaluation that are used in medicine.  There’s really no reason why we can’t do this. And I don’t think that education is unimportant, so it doesn’t really matter if we know the right answer or not. I think it does matter whether we know the right answer.

Q. How long will that take?

A. Well, the methods that we use to do education research already exist.  We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.  That means that they can be adopted very quickly. If you look at people going into education research as graduate students, they’re young and they’re flexible and they would just as happily learn the new and better methods. I find them to be excited about improving education research in the United States.

What is slow is that we have a tradition in U.S. evaluation of education of not having particularly high standards of evaluation.  There are a lot of people who are older who are going to be slower to change.  That’s really what slows down the improvements.      

Q. What higher education research are you currently working on?

A. We think that many students in the United States do not fully understand the college-going opportunities that are available to them -- either because they really don’t understand the full array of colleges that are out there, or they don’t understand what types of financial aid are offered by different types of colleges. A particular worry is that students who, in fact, could qualify to go to selective colleges and universities, do not realize the extent of the opportunities open to them. They may not be applying or attempting to qualify.… We are trying to understand where the students are in the U.S. who qualify to go to selective institutions, but don’t apply to them. And, what we’re learning is that students who are isolated are much less likely to go to college. Let’s say I go to a high school where few students go to a selective college, and I actually do really well on admissions tests. That student is usually advised to go to college. But they’re often not told that they might be eligible to go to a selective college, so, of course, they go to the nearest campus. It turns out that there are a very large number of isolated students. Trying to get colleges to have better outreach for these students is an important priority for the future.  

Q. So, what does an economics of education researcher do for fun?

A. I love art, so I like to go on vacation and look at art and architecture. I also garden a lot. After those things, it’s pretty much -- I just work all the time.  I wish I had more fun.


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