This interview was originally completed February 2015.
Philip Oreopoulos is a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
What got you interested in economics and the economics of education in particular?
In high school I thought I wanted a career in business, but then after taking an economics class I realized what I really wanted was to understand how the world of business worked, why some ended up happy and successful and others ended up homeless. Economics provides an appealing approach to understanding how best to deal with constraints (be they financial, time, or otherwise) and a wide set of tools for trying to make things better.
My training at Berkeley was in labor economics, with a focus on empirical methods for generating convincing causal inference. At that time, the field of behavioral economics was just starting to get off the ground, with research on procrastination and hyperbolic discounting, applied mostly to savings and finance. I started a project looking at the causal effects of compulsory schooling on wealth and happiness, and it dawned on me that the typical investment model of schooling could not easily explain high returns from compelling students to stay in school who otherwise would have left earlier. Behavioral models that incorporate adolescents’ lack of maturity or ability to ‘think things through’ I think are much better suited at explaining dropout behavior. I’m very interested now in students’ own contribution to their schooling production function and what that production function actually looks like. We know surprisingly little around these topics, but that is starting to change.
What is one current research project that you’re particularly excited about?
I recently finished an experiment in which high school seniors at low-transition schools were guided through the college application process in class, for free. The goal was to help every Grade 12 student exit with an offer of acceptance from a college program they helped pick and a financial aid package, regardless of how certain they were of whether they wanted to go. Many students at these schools don’t receive encouragement to go to college and must initiate much time and focus if they want to complete all the application steps on their own. By incorporating the application process into the curriculum for everyone, students less sure about college can discover the variety of programs available to them. The option to go becomes much more real. The program, randomized at the school level, produced an increase in college going of 5 percentage points among the entire Grade 12 class – an increase of about 12 students per school.
What is your “dream evaluation”? (It doesn’t have to be feasible!)
I’d like to be able to evaluate long term effects for students at the margin of going to college. My interest and others in encouraging more youth to go to college (including possibly two-year vocational programs) is based on past research that is either outdated or not all that good. There’s room for improvement and I’m hoping that an experiment will come along that has a large enough treatment effect for encouraging youth to well-matched programs who otherwise would not have gone in order to evaluate intermediate and long-term impacts on skills, finances, health, and wellbeing.
I can’t resist also suggesting to systematically evaluate how different parenting methods affect children in the long term. There is not a lot of good evidence-based advice for parents on how they could be spending their time and money to foster children’s patience, grit, compassion, etc… What activities are best for my kids? How should I manage screen time? How should I react to misbehavior? What’s the best way to discipline misbehavior? Do the answers to these questions depend on gender or social-economic circumstance? It’s would be very difficult to implement field experiments that change parenting styles, but since you’re asking me to dream…
What has been your craziest experience implementing a research project?
I had a bad experience once with a funder that did not like the one-year results of a two-year study. They requested changes to the program design and site location or else would withdrawal support. Funders usually partner to implement program evaluations because they think the program will work. It’s stressful when things don’t go exactly as planned, and even when they do, it’s no guarantee the program will work as expected.