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iBerkshires.com Columnist Section

Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Economics of "Getting Ahead"

12:00AM / Thursday, January 25, 2007

Williamstown - The study of economic mobility is an enduring interest of David J. Zimmerman: "I've always been interested in the broad question of who gets ahead, who doesn't -- why or why not," he said.

"At first, that meant trying to measure the extent to which a person's family background impacted their occupation and income when they were adults," he said. His research examined such issues as poverty, welfare dependency, and the impact of high school curriculum on students' wages. Over time, his attention has turned to higher education issues.

Zimmerman is the Orin Sage Professor of Political Economy and director of the Williams Project on the Economics of Higher Education. The project, funded continuously by the Andrew Mellon Foundation since 1989, addresses topics and questions of interest to policy makers and administrators.

"We try to answer questions that are of genuine interest to policy makers. We work hard to produce research that is scientifically credible but also understandable, so that it is useful to policy makers," said Zimmerman. "Most of our work is presented in working paper series or peer reviewed journals, along with interviews we do with the press, and testimony before various panels."

In recent years, the project's scholars have focused on access for high-ability, low-income students.

"Work that had been done in the project has been influential in framing the debate, like pointing out that price is less than cost, that we do have very significant scholarships for low-income students," he said.

Williams undergraduates have also been included in the research and have written papers with faculty members associated with the project. Recent topics have included the college's admission system, the effects of racial and ethnic diversity on educational attainment, and grade inflation.

The project is studying how Williams identifies and reaches out to low-income students. This outreach includes direct mailings, based on information from the college Board, to students with high SAT scores living in predominantly low-income neighborhoods.

"The college sends prospects a letter to encourage them to learn more about Williams, so we've been experimenting with the content of that letter. Williams has done a good job promoting the fact that it has 'need-blind admissions,' 'need-based aid,' and that we'll meet '100 percent of demonstrated need.' But that kind of vocabulary may or may not resonate well with a low-income student," Zimmerman said. "So trying to highlight the fact that Williams is both very good and affordable for low-income kids in a way that gets their attention, is something that we've been working on. The results are just starting to come in."

Zimmerman was born and raised in Toronto. A competitive figure skater for many years as a youth, he majored in business and finance at the University of Toronto. He received his Ph.D. in economics at Princeton University in 1992. He is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, where there is also a working group on higher education issues.

Zimmerman regularly teaches courses on the economics of higher education, economic justice, and econometrics.

"I like to bring into the classroom examples from my own research, and I almost never bring in examples that aren't of personal importance to me," he said. "So because of that I often talk about research related to higher education and research related to economic mobility and inequality."

Some of Zimmerman's research has focused on life at Williams. He has taken part in a number of studies of "peer effects," or the idea that the quality of a student's educational experience is influenced by the quality of fellow students. Much of this work has focused on first-year roommates at Williams and their effects on each other.

"I'm doing some more work on peer effects right now. We've actually taken the Williams data on roommates and broadened it a little bit, so that for every room on campus, we've effectively drawn a neighborhood around it," he said. "These neighborhoods vary in all sorts of ways. They very in terms of gender; they vary in terms of the SAT score; they vary in terms of race or ethnicity, athletic participation, and so on.

"It gives us something of a little laboratory in which to study how various characteristics of one's living environment, and presumably one's peer environment, affect someone's academic performance," he said.
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