Job market paper

Family Preferences and Horizontal Differentiation in Urban School Choice Markets. Draft

Many urban public school systems in the United States allow families to pick among schools differentiated by academic theme. For example, New York City students can choose to attend high schools focused on topics as varied as health sciences, journalism, and performing arts. While some of these themed programs were introduced in order to promote racial integration, we do not have evidence on whether curricular differentiation achieves this goal. In this paper, I investigate the impact of curricular themes on cross-school segregation and student outcomes in New York City high schools. I estimate a structural model using data on student applications to determine how families trade off curricular themes and other school characteristics in the application process. I find that all demographic groups, but particularly white and Asian applicants, tend to prefer Humanities and Interdisciplinary programs, the most general curricular theme, to more specialized themes. Using the model to compare the baseline assignment to a simulated counterfactual assignment in which all programs are Humanities and Interdisciplinary, I find that curricular differentiation does not reduce segregation or white flight, and if anything, slightly increases them. I also find that while the average applicant prefers their counterfactual assignment, a substantial minority of applicants, including half of all Black applicants, prefer their status quo assignment, suggesting that the optimal distribution of high school capacity across themes involves more general theme seats, and fewer, but still some, specialized theme seats. Finally, to provide a more complete picture of the trade-offs involved in offering curricular differentiation, I use random and quasi-random variation in the school assignment process to identify whether being assigned to one’s preferred curricular theme improves high school outcomes.


The Power of Certainty: Experimental Evidence on the Effective Design of Free Tuition Programs (with Elizabeth Burland, Susan Dynarski, Katherine Michelmore, and Stephanie Owen). Published in American Economic Review: Insights.

Proposed “free college” policies vary widely in design. The simplest set tuition to zero for everyone. More targeted approaches limit free tuition to those who demonstrate need through an application process. We experimentally test the effects of these two models on the schooling decisions of low-income students. An unconditional free tuition offer from a large public university substantially increases application and enrollment rates. A free tuition offer contingent on proof of need has a much smaller effect on application and none on enrollment. These results are consistent with students placing a high value on financial certainty when making schooling decisions.

Works in progress

Mobility and the distributional implications of state divestment in higher education (with John Bound, Soyoung Han, and Andrew Simon)

Declining state investment in public higher education may worsen income and racial inequality if low-income and minority students rely more heavily on in-state options and are less mobile across colleges. In this paper, we study the distributional implications of in- and out-of-state investment in public higher education across individuals and geographies. We first use policy variation in Michigan together with state administrative data to test whether changes in public investment meaningfully affect in-state and out-of-state college enrollment gaps by race and socioeconomic status. We then estimate a structural model of college choice to understand the extent to which differences in mobility and other preferences contribute to potentially differential enrollment responses to public investment, and account for these cross-state and cross-college enrollment responses in measuring the incidence of state higher education investment.

Advertising and postsecondary choice