The research community
at the Institute includes
visiting scholars, consultants,
economists, and research
analysts. These scholars bring
a diversity of backgrounds,
interests, and expertise to
research that deepens our
understanding of economic
opportunity and inclusion as
well as policies that work to
improve both. We talked with
four of them about their work.
Growing up in Arizona, Sergio Barrera dreamed of going to
college but never thought it was a realistic option. No one
in his working-class immigrant family had attended college,
and his peers weren’t familiar with college either.
“The other Mexican American kids that I grew up with—
a lot of the low-income kids I grew up with—all of us just
had in mind that college was really expensive,” he said.
“And we also had in mind that you had to be really smart
to get into college.”
“Inequality is kind
It wasn’t until after a stint in the Marines, where he picked
up academic confidence in language school and gained
access to the GI bill, that college seemed within reach.
Now, as a doctoral student at
the University of Minnesota’s Economics
Department and a research
analyst with the Opportunity &
Inclusive Growth Institute, Barrera
is trying to understand how lack
of exposure to higher education
contributes to growing educational
inequality in the United States.
The problem, he believes, isn’t
just lack of money for tuition, but
the “information friction” he and his friends experienced.
In his dissertation work, he has found that children with
less-educated parents are less optimistic that their future
earnings would justify the high debt they would incur as
students. Now he’s trying to understand how college costs
affect those beliefs. The larger goal is to predict the impact
of government interventions such as free college tuition or
arming students with better data about the job market and
college costs to help them make better decisions.
Barrera has also worked with Luisa Blanco, a former
Institute visiting scholar, and others on a recently published
paper examining causes of the racial and ethnic gap in
financial literacy, another kind of information disparity that
has long been correlated with financial outcomes.
“For me, inequality is kind of personal,” he said. “This
is about helping people that come from a similar background
to me. And the way to help people is to understand
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