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Boosting Representation

April 8th, 2019 An experiment by economists Amanda Bayer and Syon Bhanot aiming to diversify their field is generating buzz.

Syon Bhanot pressed “Tweet” with tempered expectations.

“A lot of times you write the paper and publish it and it just sort of floats off into the community,” says the assistant professor of economics. “You’re left just hoping it impacts people.”

Not this time. The paper Bhanot collaborated on with Professor of Economics Amanda Bayer and labor economist Fernando Lozano of Pomona College generated a quick buzz among top economists, both in the Twitterverse and at a meeting of the American Economic Association (AEA).

Chalk that up to its findings, which outline a clear tool to help make the economics field more diverse. And it’s a simple one at that—the sending of two emails, by a college’s economics department, that both encourage students underrepresented in the field to consider enrolling in an economics class and showcase the field’s diverse array of research and researchers.

The economists conducted a randomized experiment that tested the impact of these emails at Swarthmore and eight other private liberal arts colleges in summer 2016. They found that among the students in the “treatment” group who got the emails, the number of underrepresented students finishing an economics course in their first semester increased by three percentage points over the “control” group—nearly 20 percent of the baseline rate. Their analysis suggested even stronger effects for first-generation students.

“It shows that a small change in our own behavior as economists can produce large benefits for our students,” says Bayer, “and encourages us to think outside the box.”

The paper—“Does Simple Information Provision Lead to More Diverse Classrooms? Evidence from a Field Experiment on Undergraduate Economics”—will be published in AEA Papers and Proceedings in May. It traces back to a grant Bayer and Lozano received four years ago from the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges (AALAC), which helped them bring Bhanot and economists from peer institutions together to share strategies and conduct coordinated, randomized evaluations to generate rigorous evidence on how to attract a more diverse group of students to the economics major.

It’s a steep climb. As the paper attests, women and racial/ethnic minority students earn 57 percent and 21 percent of bachelor’s degrees, respectively, but only 31 percent and 12 percent of economics degrees. Those numbers lag far behind most other disciplines, including the STEM fields.

That resonates with Bayer, who has long studied ways to diversify economics, and Bhanot, who brought expertise in running behavioral field experiments to the collaboration.

“When you have economists with similar socioeconomic, gender, and racial experiences, you’re not going to get all the viewpoints, perspectives, and information you need to be the best you can be as an academic discipline and as a policymaking body,” says Bayer.

While that’s pretty well-understood in the field, the Swarthmore economists and Lozano knew it would take relatable research to get their peers to act.

“Once economists see numbers, empirical facts, they’re much more likely to be swayed,” says Bhanot.

The Swarthmore economists laud the effort and enthusiasm of their colleagues at schools participating in their experiment, and the partners “are continuing to meet, inform, and support one another,” says Bayer.

The early buzz for the paper is growing. Faculty and staff from colleges and universities across the country have asked for more information on the design of the experiment, seeking to implement the intervention on their campuses.

“Many economists now realize the need to enhance diversity and inclusion for the good of our students, our discipline, and the economy,” says Bayer.

And, as the economists pose in the conclusion of the paper: “If two emails can move the needle, a more concerted effort across the profession can surely make waves.”

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