Access to and the Impact of Higher Education

Given the central role of education in contemporary societies, questions about access to and the impact of education have long occupied the attention of sociologists. More concretely, scholars have asked: (1) what family and individual attributes are associated with the attainment of higher education? and (2) what are the causal effects of higher education on subsequent socioeconomic outcomes? My research examines both of these questions. In several studies, I consider how the return to a college education varies across members of the U.S. population. In a paper published in American Sociological Review, Prof. Yu Xie (Princeton University) and I question the dominant theory of rational choice and positive selection in economics and provide a compelling theoretical and empirical narrative which suggests that individuals who are least likely to obtain a college education benefit most from college. In three subsequent papers, I have extended my work on variation in the economic effects of college to consider the effects of college on civic participation (published in Social Forces), fertility (published in Demography), and marriage (published in Journal of Marriage and Family). Despite a substantial literature on average effects of college on these outcomes, there was limited evidence as to variation in effects by selection into college. In the Social Forces paper, I suggest that college completion has the largest impact on civic participation among persons least likely to complete college, and the effect of college decreases as the propensity to complete college increases. These findings show how individuals with a disadvantaged family background may effectively narrow the gap of participatory disadvantage, thereby lessening socioeconomic inequality in social influence by way of a college education. In the Demography paper, UCLA graduate student Dwight Davis and I show that the fertility-decreasing college effect is concentrated among women from comparatively disadvantaged social backgrounds and low levels of early achievement. The effects of college on fertility attenuate among women from advantaged backgrounds who are more likely to attend and complete college. Thus, college may alter the characteristic path women from disadvantaged social backgrounds would have journeyed, marked by single motherhood in young adulthood and correlated socioeconomic adversity. The sum of these and other findings suggests that college is an acutely consequential life-altering event among the most disadvantaged college-goers with the lowest propensity for college. In a paper published in Sociological Science, co-authored with Dr. Fabian Pfeffer (University of Michigan) and Prof. Sara Goldrick-Rab (University of Wisconsin - Madison), we assess the seemingly contradictory functions of community colleges by attending to effect heterogeneity, as well as alternative counterfactual conditions. Using data on high school graduates of Chicago Public Schools, we find that enrolling at a community college penalizes more-advantaged students who otherwise would have attended four-year colleges, particularly highly selective schools; however, such students represent a relatively small portion of the community college population. By contrast, enrolling at a community college has a modest positive effect on bachelor’s degree completion for disadvantaged students who otherwise would not have attended college; these students represent the majority of community college-goers. We conclude that accurately describing the role that community colleges play in social stratification requires analyzing effect heterogeneity and the processes through which heterogeneity arises. I am currently working on a book, under advance contract with Russell Sage Foundation, Rose Series in Sociology.

Selected Publications

Brand, Jennie E., Fabian Pfeffer, and Sara Goldrick-Rab. 2014. “The Community College Effect Revisited: The Importance of Attending to Heterogeneity and Complex Counterfactuals.” Sociological Science 1:448-465.

Brand, Jennie E. and Dwight Davis. 2011. "The Impact of College Education on Fertility: Evidence for Heterogeneous Effects." Demography 48(3):863-887. 

Brand, Jennie E. 2010. "Civic Returns to Higher Education: A Note on Heterogeneous Effects." Social Forces 89(2):417-433. 

Brand, Jennie E. and Yu Xie. 2010. “Who Benefits Most from College? Evidence for Negative Selection in Heterogeneous Economic Returns to Higher Education.” American Sociological Review 75(2):273-302.

Brand, Jennie E. and Charles N. Halaby. 2006. “Regression and Matching Estimates of the Effects of Elite College Attendance on Education and Career Achievement.” Social Science Research 35: 749-770. 


Socioeconomic and Social-Psychological Consequences of Disruptive Events

One prominent tradition of research in social stratification attends to the mechanisms that affect mobility and define opportunity structures that may lead to dissimilar socioeconomic paths. In several studies I assess the extent to which a particular socioeconomic shock, job displacement (i.e., involuntary job loss due to plant closing or restructuring, downsizing, or lay-offs), impacts the career achievement, social involvement, and health of workers. More recently, I examine the impact of parental displacement on the lives of children. My studies of displacement, like my studies of education, attend to the difficulties with establishing causal associations. For example, in a paper published in Social Forces [with co-author Prof. Sarah Burgard (Univ. of Michigan)], we analyze the impact of job displacement on subsequent social participation, controlling for prior levels of social involvement. While research had shown that job displacement can be economically and psychologically damaging, little was known about whether displacement is socially damaging. We find that job displacement is associated with significant, long-term reductions in social participation when workers were displaced during their prime earnings years. A recent paper published in American Journal of Sociology with UCLA graduate student Juli Simon Thomas examines the impact of job displacement among single working mothers on the lives of children. Despite a large literature associating job displacement with worker well-being, few studies focus on effects of parental displacement on child well-being, and fewer still focus on single parent households. We find significant negative effects of displacement among single mothers on children’s socioeconomic attainment and psychological well-being in young adulthood. Effects are concentrated among children whose mothers were displaced during middle childhood and adolescence and whose mothers had a low likelihood for displacement. Departing from the exclusive focus on the economic impact of job displacement in the economics literature, my work in this area has demonstrated that displacement impacts a range of non-economic life outcomes, and that the effect is not isolated to workers, but extends to families and communities.  I review this literature in a recent Annual Review of Sociology paper.  Most recently, my work on socioeconomic shocks extends to events other than job displacement. With an NIH R01 grant, Yu Xie, UCLA graduate student Ravaris Moore, Xi Song (Univ. of Chicago) and I study the impact of family disruption on children’s educational attainment.

Selected Publications

Brand, Jennie E. 2015. “The Far-Reaching Impact of Job Loss and Unemployment.” Annual Review of Sociology 41:1.1-1.17.

Brand, Jennie E. and Juli Simon Thomas. 2014. “Job Displacement Among Single Mothers: Effects on Children’s Outcomes in Young Adulthood.” American Journal of Sociology 119(4):955-1001.

Brand, Jennie E. and Sarah A. Burgard. 2008. “Job Displacement and Social Participation over the Life Course: Findings for a Cohort of Joiners.”Social Forces 87(1): 211-242.

Brand, Jennie E. 2006. “The Effects of Job Displacement on Job Quality: Findings from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study.” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 24: 275-298. 


Causal Inference and Quantitative Methods for Panel Data

The counterfactual approach to causal inference has guided my research design in many of the studies described above. This approach extends the conceptual apparatus of randomized experiments to the analysis of non-experimental data, with the goal of explicitly estimating causal effects of particular “treatments” (e.g., an event or intervention). In my early work in this area, I develop an approach for studying effects of treatments in which both exposure to treatment and the effects of treatment are time-varying (published in Sociological Methodology).  In other work [published in Social Forces, co-authored with Prof. Kenneth Bollen (Univ. of North Carolina – Chapel Hill)], I develop a general parametric panel model, showing how to incorporate fixed and random effects models to estimate causal effects into structural equation models, and how to extend the standard models to a wide variety of more flexible models. In a paper published in Sociological Methodology, I formally develop the heterogeneous treatment effects approach that I have applied in several empirical papers, as well as developing non-parametric counterparts to that approach; this paper is co-authored with Yu Xie and Ben Jann (University of Bern, Switzerland). Jann, Xie, and I also developed a publically-available Stata program to estimate heterogeneous treatment effects. I also recently published (with UCLA graduate student Juli Simon Thomas) a chapter describing causal effect heterogeneity in a volume on causal inference edited by Prof. Stephen Morgan.

Selected Publications

Brand, Jennie E. and Juli Simon Thomas. 2013. "Causal Effect Heterogeneity." Pp. 189-214 in Handbook of Causal Analysis for Social Research, Stephen L. Morgan ed., Springer Series.

Xie, Yu, Jennie E. Brand, and Ben Jann. 2012. "Estimating Heterogeneous Treatment Effects with Observational Data." Sociological Methodology 42314-347.

Stata program for estimating heterogeneous treatment effects: In Stata: ssc install hte

Bollen, Kenneth and Jennie E. Brand. 2010. “A General Panel Model with Random and Fixed Effects: A Structural Equations Approach.” Social Forces 89(1):1-34.

Brand, Jennie E. and Yu Xie. 2007. “Identification and Estimation of Causal Effects with Time-Varying Treatments and Time-Varying Outcomes.”Sociological Methodology 37: 393-434.