fbpx Q&A with Will Dobbie: Poverty and the common threads linking criminal justice, education, and consumer finance | Harvard Kennedy School

New Professor of Public Policy Will Dobbie’s work examines the causes and consequences of poverty in the United States from diverse, interrelated perspectives. His research has examined everything from racial bias in the criminal justice system, to the labor market consequences of bad credit reports, to the long-term effects of charter schools. Dobbie earned his PhD in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2013 and returns to HKS after teaching economics and public affairs as an assistant professor at Princeton University. Dobbie is a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research and this fall he is teaching Advanced Quantitative Methods II: Econometric Methods (API-210).

 

Will DobbieQ: What surprising things have you come across in your work?

The results in nearly a third of my papers have really surprised me—and that’s one of my favorite parts of this job. Let me give one concrete example. A few years ago, we were trying to understand the effects of attending an elite high school on students’ future outcomes. We studied this question in the context of New York City exam schools, some of the top high schools in the country. We compared applicants who had admissions test scores just above the entrance cut-off to applicants who had admissions test scores just below the cut-off. We considered a wide range of outcomes, including high school test scores, SAT scores, college enrollment, and college graduation, all to try and understand exactly how these elite schools might impact students. In the end, we found almost no effect of attending an elite school. Elite schools had no impact on test scores, on whether you attended college, or on the type of college you attended. Nothing. If you were a strong enough student to be considered for an elite high school, you did well whether or not you actually went to that school.

 

Q: How do your research and teaching connect to the solution of pressing problems in the world today?

I want my research and teaching to help change how we discuss major problems such as intergenerational poverty, at least at the margin. That is, I want my work to help nudge us toward a more productive policy conversation on these issues. Take my work on charter schools, for example. For a long time, the conversation in education policy was focused on whether poor children could perform at the same level as richer children. Some people argued that poor children could never perform at that level, or that they could only perform at the same level as richer children if we intervened incredibly early, well before they started school. My work and the work of others has shown that this is just wrong—with enough resources and the right policies, poor children can perform just as well in school as richer children. It seems like that work has helped shift the conversation toward how, not if, we can close the educational achievement gap. That’s the kind of nudge that I want my work to help achieve.

 

Q: You’re teaching Advanced Quantitative Methods II. What is the most important thing you want students to take away from your class?

Many students, particularly students coming from policy backgrounds, can be skeptical of the value that economics or quantitative analysis brings to the topics that they’re interested in. To me, the most important thing that students can take away from my course is how useful these tools can be in the right situation. Not every situation calls for quantitative analysis, but when it does, I want my students to be able to use those tools effectively and recognize their value.

 

Q: How have your life experiences influenced your academic direction?

The most important, and valuable, experiences in my life have revolved around meeting people from diverse backgrounds and getting to know more about them and how they see the world. For example, I spent around a year in Kenya when I was in college. Nearly every day, I would meet some incredibly smart and driven people who were often poor due to a huge number of factors outside their control. Those experiences led me to focus on all of the different causes of poverty in my academic career, and not just zero in on one particular solution.