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Scholar spotlight: Jesse Rothstein

Making data accessible for all

April 15, 2024


Andrew Goodman-Bacon Senior Research Economist, Institute
Photo collage with portrait of Jesse Rothstein
JESSE ROTHSTEIN, Carmel P. Friesen Chair in Public Policy and Professor of Economics, University of California, Berkeley
Scholar spotlight: Jesse Rothstein

The research community at the Institute includes visiting scholars, consultants, economists, research analysts, and research assistants. 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.

Nonpublic data helped launch Jesse Rothstein’s economics career. As an economics Ph.D. student and research assistant at the University of California, Berkeley, he began working with data obtained by his advisors about SAT scores. He had a sense that he could use information about SAT scores to answer additional questions about the economics of education, and with permission, that’s what he did. Rothstein’s dissertation showed that a number of widely shared beliefs—that school competition increases quality, that SAT scores are a good guide to college performance—were not very well supported by the data.

In the years since graduate school, Rothstein, who joined the Institute’s advisory board this year, has published high-impact research on topics including school finance reforms, college admissions, and residential racial segregation. Sometimes his research uses data that anyone can download and analyze: public-use census samples, for example, or the data used to calculate unemployment rates. But much of it, like much of current economic research, requires special types of data, such as firms’ tax returns or workers’ unemployment insurance records. “I was at the very beginning of a movement in the discipline where what made someone successful as an economist was having access to the data that other people didn’t have,” he reflected.

Seven years ago, Rothstein spearheaded an effort to democratize access to such data. The California Policy Lab (CPL), which Rothstein co-founded and co-directs, negotiates data access agreements with government agencies in the state of California. By wading through this tricky and costly process, CPL offers researchers a faster way to connect their creative ideas with good data. Rothstein describes this as “an effort to try to create a path to access the data that isn’t specific to somebody who has connections.”

CPL’s data resources and projects focus on seven areas: criminal justice, education, labor markets, social safety nets, health, homelessness, and low-cost service delivery improvements. The group runs many internal projects carried out by CPL staff, including an experimental analysis of simplifying in-state scholarship information sent to California high school graduates. For hosted projects, CPL acts as a broker between outside researchers and agencies that hold large administrative datasets. The costs of these arrangements would be prohibitive for individual projects, but with agency approval, CPL can provide data access quickly and easily. “We’ve got hundreds of those going,” Rothstein said.

More scholar spotlights from this issue

Rajashri Chakrabarti—Real-time tools to track equitable growth

Sheridan Fuller—A path toward public service

Aurélie Ouss—Criminal justice insight, in sight

Andrew Goodman-Bacon
Senior Research Economist, Institute
Andrew Goodman-Bacon is a senior research economist with the Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. Andrew’s research focuses on policy issues related to labor, demography, health, and public economics.