Faculty Spotlight

November’s Faculty Spotlight with Professor Dahlia Remler, PhD, Harvard University

November Faculty Spotlight

Though the Baruch College School of Public Affairs faculty conducts research on numerous topics, almost all research projects aim to inform and improve policy and practice to make the world a better place. Faculty members also often collaborate with a wide variety of research partners. We speak to Professor Dahlia Remler about her teaching, ongoing research projects, and the teamwork that has helped accomplish them.

Tell me about your teaching. What is most important to you?
The research methods course (PAF 9172) is like religious mission for me. A student once said to me that this course is about "Does the study really say what it says it says?" People use evidence and analysis all the time now—formal research, reports, small bits of analysis or evidence thrown into discussion or advocacy. It is essential to be able to figure out what that evidence and analysis is really showing—whether it means what people claim it means. It is also important to be able to extract useful, actionable lessons from research and analysis. That is true even when the research and analysis is imperfect, as it almost always is.

When I came to Baruch, I started working with Gregg Van Ryzin, who was then at Baruch, on a research methods textbook for professional masters students like our own. We wanted something that used engaging and relevant examples for our practitioner and policymaker students. We worked on the book for several years, using draft chapters in our teaching. The first edition came out in April 2010 and the second edition just last April 2014, published by Sage.

This year, I am teaching for the accelerated executive program: PAF 9170, Research and Analysis I—the statistics course and first part of the research and analysis sequence—and 9172: Research and Analysis II (August through Thanksgiving, and post-Thanksgiving through February.) In the spring I will teach two semesters of PAF 9172.

This Fall I am also teaching Health Care Costs and Financing (PAF 9766), which is also very fun to teach. I get students who work in many parts of the health care and insurance industry and I learn a lot from them. The issues change rapidly, though, and it is a lot of work to keep up. Over the years, concepts that once seemed very abstract to students – like risk adjustment and the actuarially fair premium – have come to be things that seem much more immediately relevant with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

What is your current research?
I have a lot of (too many!) open research projects and plans for more research projects. So, let me tell you about the two main ones I am working on right now and presenting at the upcoming APPAM conference.

The first is a joint project with Sanders Korenman at the School of Public Affairs. We are working on a project that tries to incorporate health insurance (and to some extent health care) as a need into poverty measurement. It also seeks to value health insurance benefits. This is very important because without it, the existing poverty measures (the official one and the otherwise much better supplementary poverty measure (SPM)) can make the elderly seem much poorer than they are, can make the Affordable Care Act seem impoverishing to some people, and can fail to measure the impact of expanding Medicaid – or failing to expand Medicaid – on poverty. The reason that the SPM does this was that until the ACA was passed it was basically impossible to treat the health insurance as a need: Not everyone could even buy health insurance if they were sick in many states. And there was no way to figure out what it would cost a family. That depended too much on their health status, whether they were employed, and so on. But with the ACA exchanges – and with Medicare Advantage Plans for the elderly – it is possible now. Our first working paper focused on the elderly and how the existing SPM showed the elderly as much poorer than they truly were. The one we are presenting at APPAM focuses on the non-elderly and implements our proposed new poverty measure in Massachusetts during their health reform, which was similar enough to the ACA to allow our poverty measure.

The second paper is part of my start at doing more higher education policy research. It is a joint project with a former Baruch undergraduate, Carmen Cortez, who is now in her second year of a job with Teach for America in their central office, focused on alumni. It is also joint with Professor Dave Marcotte of University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The motivation for our project is the debate in the media about whether college is "worth it," given rising costs and a very difficult job market post-recession. The usual response from analysts has been "more than ever", but largely due to how much worse things are with only a high school degree. However, that assessment is based on studies of average differences in earnings. There is enormous variation in earnings within each education group. Those average differences are also between people who graduate with a bachelor’s degree. In our project, still at a very preliminary stage, we are examining the full distribution of earnings (including the 10th and 90th distribution) and focusing a lot on people who get some credits but no degree. We are also comparing those in their late 20s in 1990 with those in their late 20s in 2010 to see how things have changed.

I will mention one other project: I am starting to work with Ted Joyce in the Economics department who heads Zicklin's online evaluation group. I hope to do more solid evaluations of teaching and learning approaches.

How have you worked with BSPA alumna, Carmen in your research?
Carmen Cortez initially came to see me to find an undergraduate thesis adviser. But when she got great work opportunities, she decided not to do a thesis. But she has a long-term goal of becoming a researcher, probably getting a PhD. I repeatedly advised her to get practice doing research. That is important for so many reasons, most importantly figuring out if you really actually want to do this as a career. It is also very valuable for getting in to a good graduate school. As I saw her over several months, she kept saying that she really wanted to get involved in doing research and asked if I had a project she could work on for free. I kept saying "no" because it is extremely hard for someone who has very little research training or training in the techniques needed (like statistical programming) and hard for someone who works full-time. But she was very persistent and I was impressed with how determined she had been in so many aspects of her life. I finally agreed to let her try to work on this project that Dave and I had discussed but for which I had not had time to dig into the data. The datasets were two cohorts of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which is very difficult to extract and use. Carmen has been the main person on the project to work with the data and get it into analyzable form. Her diligence is impressive.

At the upcoming APPAM conference, she will present our (still very preliminary) work.