Student Spotlight: Tolani Britton

Tolani Britton is a doctoral candidate in the Quantitative Policy Analysis in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She studies the impacts of policy on student transition from secondary school to higher education and is particularly interested in how race, gender, and socioeconomic status affect economic opportunity and access to higher education.

Prior to arriving at Harvard in pursuit of her doctoral degree, Britton earned three master’s degrees: a Master of Science in Secondary Mathematics Education from City College of New York, a Master of Arts in French Cultural Studies from Columbia University, and a M.A. in economics from Tufts University. She also attended Tufts for her undergraduate degree, double majoring in economics and French literature. She has various work experiences that have lead to her passion in education inequality research, including working as a math teacher and college counselor in New York City as well as working for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) while she was in France.

The vaunted story of the homeless student who makes it to an Ivy League university despite the odds makes the news. However, celebration of an exception cannot be the foundation for a rule . . . We must re-examine the structures of our current education system . . . Income disparity and poverty are not personal choices. They are structures and paradigms that limit access to options.   

How did you become interested in socioeconomic inequality?  

As a former math teacher and college counselor in New York City public schools, a policy analyst for the OECD in Paris, and a current doctoral student, I believe, deeply, in the capacity of research to increase access to and retention in higher education for Latino, black, and low-income students.

I did not plan on becoming a math teacher. Upon my return from France, I envisioned finding a position in economic development. I enjoyed the research that I had done with the Roundtable on Sustainable Development at the OECD in France. My work included carrying out research and writing reports on migration, remittances, services, and public-private partnerships. I learned a tremendous amount at the OECD. However, I also realized that a gap existed in my education. 

To this point, my entire experience constituted a theoretical understanding. At the OECD, I researched issues, yet remained worlds apart from the people I studied. From the French chateau that housed the OECD, I researched the migration of economically disadvantaged workers who left their families in their home countries in order to seek work abroad. Although I knew that my next position required me to work with and for the people whose "plight" I sought to change, I did not yet understand what that would look like.

In the South Bronx, I worked with many students who lived the reality of this economic migration. I dreamed of changing the lives of my students, not yet realizing that in order to create change in their lives, I needed to fundamentally change my own perspective.

While attending Tufts University, I decided to study economics due to my deep interest in understanding how and why people make decisions. From a purely economic standpoint, my students often make poor decisions. They work at jobs as store clerks even after receiving admission to summer travel programs. If I simply study my students’ choices outside of the context of their lives, I come to the conclusion that their poor choices contribute to their economic position. I now recognize that the structures that exist do not give my students access to educational and economic opportunities. The students who “choose” to work instead of attending an academic summer camp often do so to supplement the income of their parents who are already working two jobs. The economic tradeoff that my students make is a “choice” only in the abstract. 

The vaunted story of the homeless student who makes it to an Ivy League university despite the odds makes the news. However, celebration of an exception cannot be the foundation for a rule. Mathematically, a proof is never based on a single numerical example. If the general case does not hold true, then the theory does not work. We must re-examine the structures of our current education system. The ultimate goal is to find ways to modify existing institutions to allow increased access to college and economic opportunity for all students.

Income disparity and poverty are not personal choices. They are structures and paradigms that limit access to options.   

Continuing on the same theme, can you discuss your working paper entitled, “College or Bust…or Both: The effects of the Great Recession on college enrollment for black and Latino students”?

Drawing on my previous work experience and academic training, my research uses quasi-experimental methods to measure the impact of national, state, and local policies on students’ transition from secondary school to higher education, as well as access and retention in higher education. 

In particular, this paper looks at whether the Great Recession (GR) led to changes in two- and four-year college enrollment patterns for students aged 18-24. Specifically, I examine how the odds of enrollment have changed for black and Latino students. It was not initially clear whether the GR would increase or decrease college enrollment. On the one hand, higher unemployment could prompt people to enroll in college, but on the other, reduced credit availability could decrease an individual’s ability to cover tuition costs. I exploit the severity of the recession in different states to compare how enrollment evolved in states that had unemployment rates above the national average during the recession using the Current Population Survey (CPS) October Education supplements from 2000-2012 as the data source. Using a difference-in-difference (DD), I find that the odds of college enrollment in two-year institutions, as opposed to not enrolling, increased after the onset of the Great Recession in states with above average unemployment. However, using a differences–in-differences-in-differences (DDD), I did not find differential enrollment patterns for black and Latino students when compared to their white peers in states with unemployment above the national average. 

Let’s talk about your dissertation on the effects of the anti-drug laws on Black male college enrollment. What is the motivation behind this research, and how are you addressing it?

The title of my dissertation is: “Locked up Means Locked out: The Effects of the Anti-Drug Laws on Black Male Students’ College Enrollment.” While research documents that rates of college access and completion have increased during the past several decades, the trend data also reveal differences by race and gender. My dissertation seeks to explore one possible reason why college enrollment and graduation for black men has grown at slower rates than for other groups. I explore whether the disproportionate increase in incarceration of black males for drug possessions and manufacture increased gaps in college enrollment rates by race and gender over two time periods: after the passage of the Anti-Drug Act from 1986 -1993 and after the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act from 1995 - 2014. I propose to use a differences-in-difference-in-differences strategy that will exploit both the federal law introductions and variation in state laws with regards to penalties for marijuana possession. The results could have implications for understanding educational gaps by race and higher education policy as the country looks to reform the criminal justice system, and in particular the treatment of non-violent drug offenders.

Can you explain why studying economics in the context of social inequality is important?

"A text without context is a pretext" - source unknown but often ascribed to Donald Carson.

I study the economics of education. I ground my work in the context of structural inequity and social inequality for our students. Access to resources and opportunity is extremely limited by social strata, including the type of nursery, elementary and high school that you attend, which in turn, often determines your college and career opportunities. 

The types of questions I aim to answer include, How does X program or policy impact the likelihood of high school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion for students? How does this vary by gender and race?

What are your expectations for the upcoming Summer School on Social Inequality?

I look forward to garnering feedback on my current work and learning from scholars who have dedicated their careers to understanding how we measure inequality in order to address structural inequity. Measurement is the first step in increasing access to opportunity. 

This is my first UChicago event. At the SSSI, I anticipate sharpening existing tools and learning new approaches to measuring inequality. 

Are you looking forward to any specific sessions or speakers? If so, why?

I am really excited about the work of Martha Bailey. Her paper with Susan Dynarski, "Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in College Entry and Completion," led me to begin asking questions about the “why” of growing college enrollment and completion differences between black males and females in the 1980s, which is now my dissertation topic.

As relates to context, Chicago is also an important urban center to explore persistent social inequities and research how to address the structures that undergird this inequity.

After attending the SSSI event in Chicago, Tolani wrote in to describe her experience and provide post-summer school impressions.

The Summer School was excellent. It was much as I expected, given the researchers who were presenting. 

Attending the Summer School had a dual purpose for me. While I learned more about how to measure inequality in its many dimensions, I also thought about how to use these measures in my dissertation, which explores the effects of the drug laws of the 1980s and 1990s on black male college enrollment. 

All of the lectures were both high quality and informative. Two presentations that I really enjoyed were those of Martha Bailey and Steven Durlauf. Martha's work on the laws around contraception and fertility rates is fascinating and pushed me to think about how to measure changes in laws. I also thought that Steven Durlauf's points about the importance of modeling individual heterogeneity were critical.  

Held over the summer across three international sessions, the 2016 Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Global Working Group Summer Schools on Socioeconomic Inequality provide a state-of-the-art overview on the study of inequality and human flourishing. The summer schools are one of a host of summer research activities highlighted in this series. To learn more, please visit our summer research hub.

—Tina Cormier