Researching College and University Trends

Cornell Higher Education Research Institute work expanded by Mellon grant
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $640,000 research grant to the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (CHERI).

The three-year grant continues Mellon support for ongoing institute research to examine trends in humanities funding and "to better understand racial, ethnic and gender disparities in higher education," said CHERI Director Ronald G. Ehrenberg. "Such understanding should support the work of institutions seeking to increase the number of African-Americans and Hispanics pursuing Ph.Ds."

Ehrenberg is Cornell's Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics and a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at the university.

Funding provided since 1998 by the foundation has helped Ehrenberg – along with dozens of undergraduate and graduate students – research pressing issues facing colleges and universities across the nation.

One of the issues is funding trends for the academic humanities and the implications of further cutbacks in state support for public institutions, Ehrenberg said. Another is how to increase racial and ethnic balance of higher education faculty. Research in both areas will continue at CHERI under the Mellon grant.

For African-Americans and Hispanics, the road to a doctoral degree and a college-level teaching position appears to begin at home, Ehrenberg said. Decisions about potential majors in college and career paths are conditioned by socioeconomic factors such as parents' education and occupations, and family income levels.

In the next wave of Mellon-funded research, Ehrenberg said, "I want to study how these variables influence Ph.D.-going behavior and the decisions by new Ph.Ds to enter academic careers."

"Underrepresentation of people of color in faculty positions is largely due to their underrepresentation in the Ph.D. student population," he said.

The threatened well-being of humanities departments in both private and public institutions will be addressed through the grant, Ehrenberg said. Increasing pressure from parents and students for education in fields leading to strong income earning prospects has accelerated concerns for the future of the humanities.  

Considered one of the nation's foremost authorities on the economics of higher education, Ehrenberg has mentored many students through Mellon-funded research. Some of those students are now colleagues.

"Many of my former Ph.D. students are now leaders in the fields of the economics of education and public policy," he said in an interview.

For instance, Amanda Griffith Ph.D. '09 is an assistant professor of economics at Wake Forest University. John Cheslock Ph.D. '01 and Liang Zhang Ph.D. '05 are associate professors of education at Penn State University. Joseph Price Ph.D. '07 is an associate professor of economics at Brigham Young University.

In addition, seven former undergraduate research assistants at CHERI have gone on for Ph.D. study in economics, education or public policy. They include Christopher Smith '03, who received his Ph.D. in economics from MIT, and Marquise McGraw '06 and Divya Kirti '10, who are enrolled in Ph.D. programs in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard, respectively.

Through the most recent Mellon grant, current students and Ehrenberg will expand research in areas expected to include:

  • Analysis of factors contributing to the shortage of faculty of color in higher education. Why do so few students of color go on for Ph.D. study? How is the propensity for doctoral study and academic careers influenced by family education, occupations and income? What is the impact of the foundation's Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, designed to support pursuit of Ph.D. education by students of color?
  • Impact of staffing patterns on humanities departments. Do disciplinary backgrounds of deans, provosts and presidents influence an institution's treatment of the humanities? How does faculty gender relate to the availability of "family friendly" policies at an institution? Do faculty gender disparities impact who pursues advanced degrees in the humanities?
  • Impact of undergraduate curriculum structure on student propensity to pursue doctoral study in the humanities.
  • Roles played by early career decisions, family formation decisions and partners' employment situations on careers of people who hold doctoral degrees in the humanities.
Identification of the types of institutions where initial faculty appointments of recipients of humanities doctorates occurred and whether movement to a full-time, tenured-track position took place at the same institution in which a non-tenure-track position was held. The relationship of gender, marital/partner status, and numbers and ages of children would also be studied.