THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 41, Fall 2011

William A. McEachern, Editor


Arafat L. Osipian of Vanderbilt has examined the market for dissertations in Russia. An estimated 20% to 30% of all defended dissertations there are written for money by a specialist for a client. Osipian found 169 firms in Russia that offer dissertations for sale (not counting individuals who provide this service directly). Nearly all these firms advertise online and promise confidentiality. They are registered with the government and pay taxes. Starting prices for a doctoral dissertation range from $4,000 to $25,000. But the cost of pushing the paid-for dissertation through the education bureaucracy can exceed the cost of the dissertation. That path is sometimes greased by bribes and political connections. Osipian argues that the system maximizes the payment of illicit bribes. In such an environment, politicians have an easier time getting the dissertation board's approval (among the 450 members of the Russian Parliament, more than half hold doctorates). A paid-for dissertation appears to have little use beyond securing a degree. See "Economics of Corruption in Doctoral Education: The Dissertations Market," which appeared online August 25, 2011, to subscribers of the Economics of Education Review. My summary is based on an earlier version of the paper, which can be downloaded at

In Issue 18 (Spring 2000) of The Teaching Economist, I reported on a study about the impact of college selectivity on later earnings by Stacy Dale, now at Mathematica Policy Research, and Alan B. Krueger, now the newly appointed head of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors (on leave from Princeton). They noted that previous studies found a positive link between college quality and a student's subsequent earnings. A major problem with such studies is that more selective colleges admit students based on qualities that also relate to their subsequent earnings capacity. Researchers may filter out some of this with control variables such as SAT scores, but many characteristics used by the admissions committee are simply not available to subsequent researchers. To control for the selection bias, Dale and Krueger matched students who were admitted to the same set of institutions, then focused on the earnings impact of the college the student chose to attend. They found that, ceteris paribus, students who attended a more selective college earned no more than students who were accepted by that college but instead attended a less selective institution. They have now reprised their earlier study by using a longer and more reliable series for earnings. They adjust for unobserved student ability by controlling for the average SAT score of the colleges to which that student applied. After that adjustment, they find that the return to college selectivity is generally indistinguishable from zero. There are notable exceptions for certain subgroups. For black and Hispanic students and for students who come from less-educated families (based on their parents' educations), the estimates of the return to college selectivity remain large, even in models that adjust for unobserved student characteristics. One possible explanation for this is that highly selective colleges may provide access to networks for minority students and for students from disadvantaged family backgrounds-networks that would otherwise not be available to them. Their paper, "Estimating the Return to College Selectivity Over the Career Using Administrative Earnings Data," (NBER Working Paper No. 17159, June 2011) can be downloaded at if your school subscribes to NBER publications.

Earlier I reported on research showing important peer effects based on random roommate assignments for incoming college freshman (see Issue 36, Spring 2009). Getting a randomly assigned roommate who brings a videogame to college lowers a student's GPA that term by 0.2 based on a 4.0 scale. If the student also brings a videogame, the GPA is lowered by 0.3. Another study has now used this natural experiment of random roommate assignments, this time trying to consider any effects on weight changes during freshman year. Olga Yakusheva and Marianne Weiss of Marquette and Kandice Kapinos of the University of Minnesota collected data from students living on campus at a private Midwestern university at the beginning of freshman year (they collected data from both males and females, but the male sample turned out to be too small). Based on a sample of 144 female students randomly assigned roommates, the researchers found that the amount of weight gained during freshman year was negatively and significantly related to the roommate's starting weight. The authors acknowledge that this finding may seem counterintuitive at first, but there was evidence that roommates who weighed more than average had already adopted weight management strategies, which may have helped peers with weight control. The study, "Peer Effects and the Freshman 15: Evidence from a Natural Experiment," appears in Economics & Human Biology, (March 2011): 119-132. The paper is accessible online only to subscribers of the journal, but an SSRN copy can be downloaded for free at

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