Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight: James Rosenbaum

Redefining Research Goals, Designing Real-World Policy Solutions


Those outside of academia sometimes accuse researchers of working in an ivory tower—of offering policy solutions that sound good on paper, but result in little real-world impact.

After earning his PhD in sociology from Harvard University, IPR education researcher James Rosenbaum was determined to be a different kind of researcher.

“My goal has really been to make research that can be helpful in the policy world,” Rosenbaum said.

Throughout his career, he has led studies that have had important implications for improving outcomes for U.S. students and the disadvantaged—and have also led to the design and development of cutting-edge programs in education and housing policy.

Rosenbaum
James Rosenbaum

“It’s been very exciting,” he said. “Some of the work that I’ve done … is just starting to have some impact on policy and to help policymakers see untapped potentials.”

Housing Mobility: Gautreaux and MTO

Some of Rosenbaum’s first work with a big policy impact was his research on housing mobility. He had little knowledge of housing programs when then-director of IPR, Margo Gordon, told him about the Gautreaux Program, a Chicago residential mobility program that sought to improve outcomes for low-income black families by moving them into better housing in black urban neighborhoods and white suburban ones.

Rosenbaum was curious about the project’s outcomes. This led him to study it and other housing programs for two decades, with many colleagues including law professor and IPR associate Len Rubinowitz.

He and Rubinowitz designed a series of studies to evaluate Gautreaux, finding that it was very effective for children of families that moved to the suburbs, who were then more likely to graduate high school, attend four-year colleges, and have better jobs.

Their Gautreaux research spurred the creation of a national program, Moving to Opportunity (MTO). MTO produced some benefits, but its effects were not as strong as those of Gautreaux because it created shorter moves and little improvement in schools or employment opportunities.

Nevertheless, Gautreaux demonstrated that “low-income children have great untapped potential that emerged when they left the housing projects and moved to middle-class suburbs,” Rosenbaum said.

Community Colleges

As the costs of higher education continue to rise, community colleges have been seen as one way to address issues of affordability, practical training, and as a way to access the middle class—as evidenced by President Obama’s recent initiative to offer two years of free community college tuition to as many as nine million students. Much of Rosenbaum’s recent work has investigated the ins and outs of sending students to community colleges, including examining why only 37 percent of students graduate within eight years of enrolling.

In his book, After Admission, Rosenbaum and his co-authors Regina Deil-Amen and Ann Person discovered many “quite unconventional” procedures in some colleges, which improved students’ success. These included providing a limited number of highly structured programs rather than offering majors in every topic imaginable. Too many choices, he has discovered, leads community college students to waste time and money, and they fail to complete their degrees on time.

Recently, administrators sought Rosenbaum’s help when designing a new community college, Guttman Community College, in New York. They noticed their students were struggling with many of the issues Rosenbaum mentions in the book.

Guttman’s administrators “took the ideas, they understood what the essence was, and they devised administrative procedures that would make them happen,” Rosenbaum said.

Beyond College for All

The radical changes of the past two decades made Rosenbaum suggest that we should reconsider what we mean by “college for all,” and what forms it should take. 

“Eighty-six percent of high school graduates go to college in this country,” Rosenbaum explained. “We do not have a big problem about getting into college. The problem is getting something from that experience.”

Another stream of his research looks into lowering college dropout rates and educating students about credentials that are more attainable than a four-year bachelor’s degree, including associate’s degrees and certification programs that can provide disadvantaged students with well-paying employment, even if they later go on to pursue BA degrees.

In conducting interviews with students and faculty in such programs, Rosenbaum has already uncovered a surprising result: People from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds do just as well in these programs as people from high-SES ones, both in completing credentials and in getting good jobs.

Additionally, these programs do not require college-level skills, so students can jump right into them without years of remediation.

In some of his interviews, “Faculty say, ‘What I need in my students is solid eighth grade skills.’ Eighth grade! So, really, the usual insistence on college-level academic skills has defined the problem in a way that is much harder to solve than the reality,” Rosenbaum said.

“Research finds many disadvantaged students can succeed and get payoffs from college without college-level academic skills. Research can be a powerful tool for improving understanding, seeing new options, and redefining our goals,” he added.

James Rosenbaum is professor of education and social policy and of sociology. He also chairs IPR’s research program on Poverty, Race, and Inequality. To learn more about his research, visit his IPR webpage.