Examining the Early Adult Economic and Social Returns to Broad-Access Four-Year College Enrollment
Caitlin Ahearn

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of California, Los Angeles

Primary Discipline

Operating at the margin between community colleges and more selective colleges, broad-access four-year institutions have an important opportunity to offer a pathway to social mobility for students historically locked out of higher education. Still, relatively little is known about whether students who enroll in these colleges are placed on a similar path as those who enroll in more selective colleges, or how their life course trajectories differ from community college enrollees. To address these questions, my dissertation delineates the diverse consequences of broad-access four-year college enrollment, and how those vary across the student population. I apply a causal inference approach to the ELS and the NLSY97 data sets to examine three economic and social outcomes. First, I examine differences in bachelor?s degree returns to broad-access four-year college by socioeconomic status, high school achievement, and race. Second, I estimate the effects of broad-access four-year college enrollment on economic disadvantage during early adulthood, and assess differences by socioeconomic background to better understand social mobility processes. Finally, I study how college enrollment decisions relate to union formation and stability, and how those effects vary across gender. I further focus on how degree completion mediates the effects of differential enrollment on economic disadvantage and family formation. My dissertation contributes to theoretical and empirical understandings of the processes by which institutional stratification in higher education affects individuals? outcomes. By highlighting when, for whom, and why college differences matter, this project will help inform decisions at the policy, institutional, and individual level.
About Caitlin Ahearn
Caitlin Ahearn is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Caitlin is also a student affiliate at the California Center for Population Research and has worked as a research fellow for the Los Angeles Education Research Institute for four years. She is broadly interested in inequalities in educational attainment and associated occupational and life course outcomes. Her research applies causal inference approaches to large-scale longitudinal survey data. Caitlin?s dissertation assesses the impact of enrollment in broad-access four-year institutions on key markers of adulthood, including educational attainment, economic insecurity, and family formation. Other ongoing research projects include estimating heterogeneity in the effects of college on voting (with Jennie Brand and Xiang Zhou), and examining changes over time in the racial composition of elite college enrollment. She has recently published research in the Sociology of Education on the interaction between educational and occupational expectations. Caitlin?s research has been supported by the UCLA Graduate Division and by the California Center for Population Research.

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