329. Admission to Highly Selective Colleges

Graduates from a small number of elite private colleges account for a disproportionate share of America’s business and political leaders. In this episode, John Friedman joins us to discuss his recent study with Raj Chetty and David Deming that examines how admissions criteria at these institutions privilege students from high-income families.

John is the Briger Family Distinguished Professor of Economics and International Public Affairs at Brown University, where he is the chair of the Economics Department. He is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and has served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy at the National Economic Council. John is also a member of the U.S. Treasury Council on Racial Equity, a co-Editor of the American Economic Review, and a founding Co-Director of Opportunity Insights.

Show Notes


John K: Graduates from a small number of elite private colleges account for a disproportionate share of America’s business and political leaders. In this episode, we discuss a recent study that looks at how admissions criteria at these institutions privilege students from high-income families.


John K: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by

John K:, an economist…

John K: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John K: Our guest today is John Friedman. John is the Briger Family Distinguished Professor of Economics and International Public Affairs at Brown University, where he is the chair of the Economics Department. He is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and has served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy at the National Economic Council. John is also a member of the U.S. Treasury Council on Racial Equity, a co-Editor of the American Economic Review, and a founding Co-Director of Opportunity Insights. Welcome.

John F: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are: … John, are you drinking any tea with us today?

John F: So, I’m a big tea drinker…

Rebecca: Yay!

John F: …but, I drink tea in the morning. And so I had a delightful Hunan tea this morning, which I will draw on the reserves of that energy throughout this conversation.

Rebecca: Well played. [LAUGHTER]

John K: And I am drinking a ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea. Not so fancy, but I enjoy it.

Rebecca: I have an Awake tea because I also need some energy. [LAUGHTER]

John K: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your 2023 working paper with Raj Chetty and David Deming, “Diversifying Societies leaders: The Determinants and Causal Effects of Admission to Highly Selective Private Colleges.” This paper created a big stir in higher ed and other circles as well. You note in this study that less than one half of 1% of college students attend Ivy plus institutions. While most of our listeners will be familiar with Ivy League colleges, what are the other colleges that are included in the Ivy plus designation?

John F: Thanks. And it’s helpful to clarify up front, the colleges that we’re directly studying are the eight Ivy League schools: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Princeton, Penn, and four close peers which are Stanford, MIT, Duke, and Chicago. The important thing to know here, you’re right, that there’s a pretty small share of students, it’s not that something changes discreetly, when you move out of that group of 12 schools, and you go to another outstanding private institution like Northwestern or Johns Hopkins or something like that. We have some data, it seems like there’s some pretty similar things going on across a lot of these very highly selective private institutions. Where you do see things being quite different, where we have some data as well, is at the most elective public institutions, places like UC-Berkeley, University of Michigan, UT-Austin, places like that.

John K: You still have to draw the line somewhere when you have prestigious institutions.

John F: That’s right.

Rebecca: So you noted that these institutions enroll a small share of our students, why are they so important? Why do we need to study them?

John F: That’s right, less than 1% of college students in the country go to one of these schools. And, of course, college students themselves are just a small share of students born in any given cohort. What we found, though, was that students from these institutions are really highly over represented in leadership positions in society. You see that if you look at who’s at the top of the income distribution, or who’s a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. More than 10% of those individuals are from these Ivy plus institutions. But it even gets higher when you look at who’s in the U.S. Senate. About three-quarters of the Supreme Court justices over the past 50 years have come from the schools. And so for sure, the schools themselves are not going to be making broad scale changes in upward mobility in our society. They’re just too small. But in terms of creating both a diverse group of leaders and a broad set of pathways, where children from any background have the chance to be a Senator or Supreme Court Justice, whatever, these schools are incredibly important.

John K: One of the things that your study did is it investigated questions that couldn’t be investigated before because of the data that you were able to assemble. Could you tell us a little bit about the data set that you use?

John F: Sure, our study, like so many others, has been the beneficiary of the big data revolution. It’s affected so many aspects of society, and this is the academic part of it. We’re merging together datasets from three different places. The starting point for this paper and for many of my other research is the universe of U.S. tax and census records, which have been merged together at the US Census Bureau. And what that allows us to do is to identify individuals when they’re kids and then actually follow them through to not just project what we think their outcomes might be, but really actually observe them after they get out of college and they’ve entered the labor force. Those data are incredibly important in terms of measuring upward mobility directly. Then, on top of that, in order to study really in depth what’s going on at these institutions, we have internal admissions data from several Ivy plus colleges as well as a bunch of these most selective public universities and university systems. And we see where children are coming from, or where they grew up in the tax data, we see where they end up in the tax data, the college data are really filling in this in between, how do they go through the college application process. We both learn a lot of other information about them, like where they applied, there’s a lot of detail about the evaluations of their applications, as well as of course, whether they eventually get in and matriculate. The final data that we’re using is a set of standardized test scores from the two main testing companies: College Board that runs the SAT, and then ACT, which runs the eponymous test. And the way we use those data are to start from a baseline of academic achievement at the point when these students are applying to university. And we can talk about how that works, and of course, it’s not a perfect proxy for where students are. But when we think about the role that universities are going to be able to play, we just have to be realistic about the fact that they are starting to interact with students when they’re 17 or 18, and there’s a whole lot of inequality in our country that’s going to affect students long before that. And so we talk, of course, as a policy matter about how to deal with all that inequality. But the reality of the situation, especially at this highly selective level, there are going to be some students that just aren’t academically prepared. So that’s going to shape the set of students that these colleges can recruit or admit.

Rebecca: One of the main questions that you address in the paper is: “Do highly selective colleges amplify the persistence of privilege across generations by taking students from high income families and helping them obtain high-status. high-paying, leadership positions?” What do your results suggest?

John F: So that’s exactly the kind of broad goal of our paper, to answer that question. And I think, unfortunately, the answer is that on average, yes, they do amplify the persistence of privilege. That comes from two different parts. So first of all, the students who attend these colleges, we measure a pretty large causal effect on their outcomes, specifically in these leadership positions as adults. Of course, the students are very highly selected when they come in. And so even if the college’s weren’t doing anything, you’d expect these set of students to be doing some impressive things afterwards. But what we find when we talk about more of the details of how we do this later, there’s a very large causal effect. And so these universities, it’s not just that a large share of senators come from them, they do seem to be a very important pipeline effect, where it’s really propelling students up into these leadership positions. Now, on the admission side, who are the students that are coming into this set of institutions that are benefiting from this really positive effect? The problem here is that even relative to the distribution of test scores for high school graduating seniors, which as we talked about before, exhibit a whole amount of inequality due to differences in education and neighborhoods that different students from different backgrounds have been exposed to before they’re applying to college. Even just looking at students that have the very same test scores, high-income students are substantially more likely to be admitted to and attend these institutions, relative to lower-income students, and especially middle-income students. The gaps are largest when comparing students from very high-income families to students from middle-class, upper-middle class families.

John K: And in your study, you tie some of this selection process to athletic scholarships, to legacy students, as well as attendance at private high schools. Could you talk a little bit about how those factors influenced the decisions?

John F: Sure. So the approach that we take is a decomposition of this pipeline, we see that students are coming in with, let’s just say everybody has the same test score, a group of students at the beginning, we see that the students from high-income families are more likely to end up attending this set of schools at the end of the day, and we’re going to try to decompose where in the pipeline these disparities are emerging. And so the way we first start is actually at a somewhat higher level than you asked the question, which is just to decompose these differences between the application phase, which of the set of students with a given test score applies to these institutions, the admissions phase of those students with that given set of test scores that applied which are admitted, and then the matriculation or the yield phase of those that are admitted whose actually going to choose to come at the end of the day? And what I found interesting coming into this project is that there are many different analyses or ideas about how each of those three phases could be affecting it. There’s concerns about who has the information or the resources to apply. There’s concerns about potential biases in the admissions process from some of the factors that you mentioned, legacy preferences or private schools. And there’s a concern that maybe schools aren’t offering financial aid that’s sufficient in order for students from less affluent families to attend. In our data, we see that about two-thirds of that entire disparity is coming from the admissions part of that alone. So that’s not all of it. But I mean, just to give some numbers, there are about 250 students from the top 1% of the parental income distribution who are in an average starting first-year class, that’s about 1650 students. So right there, about 15% of the class is coming from the top 1% of families. Of those 250, we find that about 160 of them are extra in the sense that if everyone attended at the same rate, when they have the same test score, there would only be about 90 students from the top 1% of families. And so then of that 160, about 100 are coming from the fact that high-income students are more likely to be admitted. There are smaller effects coming from differences in application rates, even smaller effects coming from differences in matriculation rates. But primarily, the differences are coming through the admissions process. And even before we get into specific policies, I think that that decomposition is incredibly important, because the admissions process is the one part of this that schools entirely control themselves. If you want more people to apply to your school, that’s hard, because applications are the students’ decision, you have to go out and convince a bunch of students to apply. If you want to get more students to yield, to matriculate, you have to convince those students, it’s their decision. The choice about who to admit, it’s just the school’s choice. This is the one lever that the schools entirely control. And so the fact that most of the disparities are explained by this set of policies, on the one hand, maybe that’s a good thing that they control, and maybe can directly fix what is the source of the problem. On the other hand, it’s a little bit discouraging that it’s in the choice of these own universities that these disparities are being created, despite what are typically loudly voiced concerns for upward mobility. So it’s really the admissions process that matters. Now, we then go down to the next level. and this gets to the factors that you mentioned. Why is it that a high-income student with a 1400 test score is going to be admitted at a higher rate than a middle-income student or a low-income student with a 1400 test score. And even just to start with, in some sense, the dog that didn’t bark here, you might have thought that students with a 1400 from low-income families, they might even be more impressive that they got to that level despite facing all of these barriers, but we see that admissions rates are in fact much higher for high-income students. And we trace that back to three factors. The first and most important factor up 40% of what’s going on is the preference for legacy students. Those are students who are children of alumni of the institution. Now, legacy students affect the admissions rate of high-income individuals for two reasons. One is pretty obvious, the alumni of these institutions themselves are just much more likely to be high income. That’s kind of the generation before, we’re getting the same positive effect of attendance. But the second reason, I think, was a little bit more surprising to me. It turns out that legacy students from high-income families receive a substantially larger admissions boost, even then, legacies from lower-income families. So there’s kind of a preference for high-income students, even within the legacy pool. And you put those two things together, and that accounts for about 40% of the admissions difference. The second factor is the fact that all of these schools designate about somewhere between 12 and 15% of their class for athletic recruits. Now, there’s nothing inherent in athletics, that means that it has to be students from high-income families. And in fact, if you look at the distribution of athletic recruits at public universities, those students mirror the income distribution of most of the other students at the school, in the sense that there’s not a tilt towards high-income families. But at private institutions, the share of admitted students that are athletic recruits among high-income families is significantly higher… more like 13-14%… than It is among admitted students from low-income families where only 5 or 6% of those students are athletes. Now, why is this the case? I was an athlete in college myself, and I don’t think that it’s just because kids from higher-income families are more athletically talented. I think it has to do first with the resources that are available to these kids. Becoming a college baseball player isn’t just about having good hand-eye coordination, it’s about being able to attend clinics, being part of a travel team, there’s like a lot of stuff that goes along with being able to get to that level. And then I think the second factor is that the set of sports that are offered by many of these institutions go well beyond the canonical football, basketball, baseball, which may be a little bit more broad base, but they also include sports like water polo, or sailing or equestrian. And these are sports where I’m sure that there are examples of athletes from all across the income distribution, but think they tend to skew towards more high-income families. So athletic recruits are the second major chunk. And then the third is what my friend David Leonhardt at the New York Times likes to call private school polish. A lot of what the schools focus on in the admissions process goes beyond just how academically prepared people are, and they really like to see somebody who’s doing interesting things that could be as part of extracurriculars, that could be the way they spend their summer, could be the way that teachers write about the students or the guidance counselors write about the students. And all of this gets channeled through a student’s evaluation on non-academic factors. And what we see there is that not only are students from high-income families much more likely to get very strong non-academic ratings, that seems to flow through through things like recommendation letters that are really centered at the school level. And just more generally, you find if you compare high- and low-income students who are attending the same school, you no longer see this disparity in non academic ratings. And so our sense is that these other broader factors that kind of seep into the admissions process are accounting for the third leg of this tripod that’s giving high-income students an advantage in the admissions process.

John K: And some parents are probably sending their students to more elite private schools in the hope that that will enhance their prospects. And the schools that accept them recognize that one of the reasons students are going there is because they prepare them better for selection in a more prestigious institution.

John F: I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s not just parents and schools, the thought that colleges place a substantial weight on these non-academic factors, which then can be kind of trained for and developed over the years, I think this is really a major force that shapes the way that parents and kids and lots of organizations in society direct their resources. So let me just give you an example here. I was presenting this paper at UC Berkeley in the economics department and a friend of mine who lives in San Francisco, who’s a professor there sent me a picture of an advertisement on the side of the road, like kind of billboard on the side of the road, for a fencing academy. It’s called the Saber School. And it says “a safe, fun sport that will help: what are the things that doing saber will help?” Well, number one, it will enhance performance at work and school. Okay, that sounds plausible. Number two, it will enhance speed, coordination, and decisiveness. Number three, it will help you get accepted at top US colleges, just like right there on the billboard. And so if you want to fence as a kid, that’s totally fine, and some people are gonna really enjoy it. But the fact that colleges value this and so now all sorts of people are spending their time fencing simply because they think it will help their college application, I find that to be a little bit silly.

Rebecca: I don’t think we would have found that billboard in my neighborhood. [LAUGHTER]

John K: Although if you brought a saber to work, [LAUGHTER] you might get more attention.

John F: That raises a host of other issues. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: In your study, you also examined admission rates at highly selective public colleges. Do their admissions also favor students from high-income households over lowincome households when other student characteristics are held constant?

John F: Yeah, so the public most selective institutions, they provide a really interesting contrast to the private schools, and there are really two differences. The first difference is that it’s still true that students from high-income families with the same test score are more likely to be attending these places like UC Berkeley or Michigan than students from lower-income families. But it’s not the super concentration in the top 1%, the top 1% are about 20% more likely to attend, but so are the top 5% And roughly top 10%. It’s more kind of a broad top of the income distribution than kid of the uber rich that are benefiting from this. Then second, when you do the decomposition that we do at the private schools, you find that, in fact, it’s not the admissions process, the chances of admission for students with a given test score are almost identical across the income distribution, if anything slightly higher for lower-income students. The big differences come in the fraction of students who apply to these schools. You see almost all of the over attendance is explained by higher application rates of high-income students. And so that really points to a very different part of pipeline. And I think there’s a whole other set of issues that in kind of policy concerns that that brings up, just to cite some fantastic work in this space by my colleague at Harvard, Sue Dynarski, she and a number of co-authors have worked with the University of Michigan over the past 10 years, on something called the Hail scholarship. And this program is really focused on this application phase where they reach out to students who are doing very well in Michigan Public Schools, and who are not from high-income families. And they not just inform the students about the University of Michigan, but they provide a simplified form of financial aid, that’s a tiny bit more generous, but just mostly clearer, that’s basically guaranteed zero for four years. And that seems to have really large effects, big increases in the share of students who are applying who receive these types of fliers, that then carries through to those that are admitted and those that end up matriculating. And so, first of all, it’s really interesting that there are sometimes different problems at these different schools. But also, I think it’s a nice lesson that even among two different schools, which are objectively at the very top of the U.S. higher educational sector, there are really important differences in terms of how these different institutions operate, and what types of policies are going to be most appropriate for increasing diversity of students and social mobility at those places.

John K: Is the rate of return to education significantly different between the Ivy plus institutions and elite public institutions?

John F: The answer is yes. But it’s different in a very particular way. So in our data, what we find, using a bunch of different empirical approaches, is that students that attend these Ivy plus institutions are significantly more likely to be at the very top of the income distribution to attend an elite graduate school, to hold a very prestigious job. They’re much more likely to do that than students who attend the very most selective of the public institutions. Those public institutions, in turn, are significantly better at propelling students to these leadership positions than lower rated less selective public institutions. And so it is both true that those public institutions are very good, and also true that these Ivy plus schools are really quite a bit better. That’s focusing on these top end leadership positions. If you look instead at something like what’s the chance that you’ll be in the top 20% of the income distribution, so for kids in their early 30s, that’s earning more than about $60,000. So that’s a good solid, professional job, you don’t have to be a hedge fund manager, there, attending these Ivy plus schools is not really going to make that much of a difference. And the reason is that at that point in the income distribution, that’s just not what the schools are designed for. You’re quite likely to get a job that’s going to pay more than that from an Ivy League school, you’re also quite likely to get a job that pays more from that at one of these elite public institutions. There are differences in average income, but it’s really driven by this kind of a lottery ticket that you’re getting on maybe you’re going to be really just an extreme leader, again, either very top of the income distribution, very prestigious firm. So the answer is yes, these schools differ, but they primarily differ in this particular way, which is why we’ve placed the emphasis on leadership rather than just kind of broad economic security. It’s not clear that students from Ivy plus schools are just broadly more economically secure in that middle of the income distribution than those from public schools.

John K: You also examine in this paper what would be the effects if the admission process at the more elite institutions were similar to that at highly selective public institutions? What do you find there in terms of the income diversity of students in the Ivy plus institutions if those preferences were eliminated?

John F: Yeah. So we’re able to simulate, exactly as you say, what would these classes look like at least probabilistically, if the admissions office were to place less weight on some of these factors, and it makes a meaningful difference. So just to give you one statistic, currently, on average, there are a bit less than 60% of students at these schools that come from the bottom 95% of the income distribution. Those are families making less than call it $250,000 A year. If you were to get rid of all these three preferences that I’ve talked about, if you were to remove preferences for legacy students, just to be clear on what that means, we’re just going to admit them based on all the other characteristics, oftentimes they’re great students, but we’re just not going to give them an extra boost for being a legacy student. If we were to remove this seeming bias that arises in the process where higher-income students are getting stronger non-academic ratings, and if you were to not necessarily remove athletics, but just make the athletes look like all the other students, so there’s not this tilt towards high-income students among athletes, you would increase the share of students from the bottom 95%, from a bit less than 60 up to about 70%, a bit less than 70. And so what does that mean in practice, again, there are about 1600, 1650 students in the average entering first-year class, we’re talking about another 150 to 160 students from more modest backgrounds. And, of course, this is not an enormous change. But it’s on the same order, as people are talking about when we think about what’s the difference in student bodies that might come from changes in racial preferences in admissions flowing from the Supreme Court decision. It’s on a similar magnitude. We’re gonna have 100, maybe 150, fewer students of color on campus. And I think it not only affects the diversity on campus, I think it also meaningfully affects the role that these schools are playing in upward mobility, particularly to these leadership positions. You make some admittedly heroic assumptions and kind of flow things through, this type of change is going to make another two or three US senators from the middle class instead of from very high-income backgrounds. And let’s not overstate this, like it’s only two or three senators, but for a set of decisions that literally 12 People can decide to make if they want to. I think that’s pretty impressive. And that doesn’t even think about well, what if the Northwesterns and the NYUs of the world decided to make some of these changes as well. So my sense is that we’re not going to remake society by doing this, but it’s a pretty low-hanging fruit. And the thing to say is it just from a policy perspective, you can achieve the same differences in the admissions pool, either by getting rid of the preferences that are afforded to high-income students, or by introducing new preferences that benefit students from low- and middle-income families that are particularly academically strong. And what we show in the paper, we kind of calibrated, we say like, if you were to introduce a new preference, specifically designed to get exactly the same mix of students that you would get from eliminating these preferences, what you would need is a preference for low- and middle-income students that’s is weaker than the preference even that current admissions offices put in place for legacy students. So legacy students, on average, are about three or four times more likely to be admitted, you’d need really strong academic students from low- and middle-income backgrounds to be, on average, about twice as likely to be admitted. And that would be a big change. But it’s not like these are changes that go well beyond the type of preferences that are already in place in the admissions process,

Rebecca: …and seemingly pretty actionable. [LAUGHTER]

John F: Yeah, and look, I think that this is a particular moment of fluidity in higher education admissions. Because of the Supreme Court decision, people are not just reconsidering how to think about diversity. That’s kind of the direct effect. But once you open up the gearbox, I think it then becomes natural to rethink a lot of different things when it comes to admissions, both because once there’s a process, it’s easier to think about other stuff. And also because I think that having a preference for students from overwhelmingly high-income families becomes increasingly awkward when you’re no longer allowed to give preferences for students who are clearly experiencing very large disparities in the run up to college. So I think almost all colleges are really strongly considering a bunch of this stuff. Some of them are doing so in publicly announced committees. Here at Brown University, I serve on a committee, including both faculty and trustees that are thinking about a bunch of these issues. Other universities are doing it more internally, only trustees, maybe it includes students. All the universities are doing this in a different set of ways. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more change in the way college admissions works over the next year or two than we’ve seen in a long time. And so yeah, hard to know what will happen, but these are an incredibly important set of issues to consider and I hope we’ve been able to contribute to that debate. As an academic, all you can ask for is that people will listen, policies, it’s up to them. There’s a lot of factors that go into that go beyond the research. But we’ve been really, both in public and had a lot of conversations with university leaders about how to think about these issues. So whatever the decision is, I’m confident it will be made on the basis of what I hope is a better set of analyses and understanding for what’s going on than we had before.

John K: Before, I think everyone expected that these types of results were occurring, but I don’t think it was really clear how large the magnitude was. And your study certainly contributes to that knowledge. Having data like this, and these results, I think, will put more pressure on institutions to change than just the general suspicion that they were privileging a very elite group of students. One of the things you note in the study is that making these changes will lead to a more diverse leadership pool, but it may not have as much of an effect on intergenerational income mobility. Could you talk a little bit about that?

John F: That’s exactly right. And I think that stems from some of the themes we’ve been talking about, where the role that these schools play in intergenerational mobility to leadership positions, that’s potentially very large. But they’re just too small to play a role in addressing some of the very broad differences in equality of opportunity that we see in this country, other than through kind of the indirect channel, which is that I think when you have individuals in these leadership positions that come from a broader range of backgrounds, you’re more likely to get policy that’s made in a way that takes into account some of these effects. And so that actually leads to some of the research that we’re really now focusing on, which is that, when you think about intergenerational mobility and higher education, an initial paper that I wrote on this, decomposed the problem into what we called access, that’s who’s attending and the success, what happens to the students that attend, you need both of them to be working together to have intergenerational mobility. If either of them is absent, then you have less mobility. And what we found was that different types of institutions seem to have problems in different areas. So institutions that were highly selective, not only the Ivy plus institutions, but honestly also some of the public institutions in the country, their lack of effect on mobility, in large part, was coming from the relatively un-diverse set of students on an income dimension that were attending their school. Many of these schools, again, both public and private, the share of students come from the bottom 20% of the income distribution is really just 3 or 4%. Really not large at all. So we really wanted to separate the question for these institutions of how do you improve mobility through increasing access with the situation for what is a very different set of institutions, not just the elite public institutions, but some of the open-access institutions, the community colleges where there, not that access can’t be improved, but I think much more the problem is that, in many cases, students are attending these institutions and not being propelled upwards in the income distribution in the way that we would hope. And so that’s really now what we’re focusing on: How can we first measure, in a very broad way, what these different institutions and programs are doing in order to propel students up the income ladder, to really give them the skills, the human capital, the social capital, in order to get good paying jobs and move upwards after that in their career? And then what are the policy levers that you would pull in order to improve that? The way I like to think about this is suppose that you gave the governor of California $10 billion to improve upward mobility in education in his state. Would you want to get more people going to Cal State instead of the California Community Colleges? Is it important that you not only go to all Cal State, is it important that you go to a particular Cal State? Is it important that you have a particular program? Are some programs much more effective than others? Should we be encouraging more people to go to community colleges, even if that costs and has fewer people going to Cal State? Do we want more people to start at community colleges and transfer up to Cal State? Do we want more people to not start at community colleges, because it’s better if you start directly at Cal State? There’s all these different questions. And there’s been some great research on different aspects of it, but I think with the data that we have, we’re hoping to provide a more unifying framework to think about what are the particular places where there’s more or less success for students, again, defined as like the causal effect of attending these places. And how can we expose more students to high success environments, either by moving them around or by changing what the programs are?

John K: In your intro, we mentioned that you were a member of the U.S. Treasury Council on Racial Equity, and the Co-Director of Opportunity Insights. Could you talk a little bit about what these organizations do?

John F: So Opportunity Insights is a research and policy organization that I run jointly with my co-authors Nathan Hendren and Raj Chetty. And what we’re doing there is trying to put together a research agenda to understand upward mobility, both from an academic and a policy perspective. Research that involves this kind of big data has evolved over the last decades to almost look more like a science lab where it’s very team oriented. It’s not a professor and her keyboard or chalkboard just kind of plugging away in isolation anymore. And Opportunity Insights is a way for us to organize all of that team in terms of there are other faculty that we collaborate with, there are graduate students we collaborate with, there are research assistants we collaborate with, there are visitors at all different levels that we collaborate with. And so Opportunity Insights is really the organization through which we just do a lot of this research and try to translate it to help policymakers and whatever that means, depending on the research. The Treasury Advisory Council on Racial Equity is very, very different. Treasury is one of the largest agencies in the federal government. And it has many different policies that directly or indirectly affect racial equity in ways that are obvious or not obvious. And the purpose of this Advisory Council is to bring together people from many different aspects of society that are relevant to Treasury’s financial policymaking. So there are a couple of academics on the committee like me, but there are also people who run financial institutions, there are people who run nonprofits that deal with financial institutions, people who run non-financial institutions, more businesses. And the idea is to be a group that can both proactively offer suggestions to Treasury in terms of how they can change things either out of blue sky or on particular policies that are undergoing after policymaking, as well as a resource for them to turn to when they say look like we’re trying to figure out… an example is a lot of the focus of Treasury over the last two years has been the implementation of the IRA bill, which includes a lot of tax incentives for green investment. How can they implement all of those tax credits? How can they write all those regulations in a way that really does so to support racial equity, and to make sure that black and Hispanic and native individuals are not left behind in a way that, unfortunately, has been too often the case in our nation’s history. So that’s far from a full-time role. We meet once a quarter in public meetings and try to offer our suggestions. And even again, this suggestions span how Treasury should implement different regulations from even how Treasury can make research on racial equity more accessible, or make data more accessible to support more research so that there’s more broad knowledge when it comes time for policymaking.

Rebecca: You’re doing some really exciting and interesting things.

John F: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for your work and sharing it with us today. But we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

John F: So I talked about some of the work in the college space. But I’m trying to think about other parts of upward mobility as well, to understand how environments or policies contribute to these disparities or what policies can help alleviate them. And a big theme in some of my recent work is to try to broaden our measure of mobility to go beyond these purely economic measures. It’s a natural place to start, both because having a higher income is something that is kind of meaningfully related to the quality of one’s life and also because it’s pretty consistent data to measure income. But I think even economists will admit to you that income is not the end of it. And we’re trying to think about other ways, not only to measure people’s wellbeing thinking about health, thinking about social capital, for instance, but also to measure or folks influence on broader society. So there are positions like entrepreneurs or scientists, inventors, that if we generate more innovation in society, that’s not something that just benefits the individual inventor, it’s something that benefits society much more broadly. And so I think that’s not only very important as kind of an alternative economic outcome, but it’s important to thinking about why something like social mobility goes beyond merely thinking about well, each individual should have their fair chance of success. These are ways in which just society as a whole is better, more innovative, more engaged, when there’s more upward mobility. And in that way, I think it’s really a rising tide that can lift all boats. So that’s a little bit of what I’ve been thinking about recently.

John K: Well, thank you for taking the time to join us. We really enjoyed this conversation. And we really, as Rebecca said, appreciate all the work that you’ve been doing.

John F: Thank you so much. It’s really been a pleasure to talk with you about all this work over the last hour and I appreciate that.


John K: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.