Love of research brings PhD student to UW–Madison to study the economics of education

By Meghan Chua


Elise Marifian poses for a portrait.
Elise Marifian

When she was young, Elise Marifian was already curious about poverty and the major discrepancies between what people have or don’t have.

“I grew up really close by to a community that’s very, very impoverished,” Marifian said, adding that she would notice other kids in that community. “I knew, even though I was young, that the world they lived in was so different from mine, and the opportunities that I had were just not within their reach. And so I was always really curious about why those differences existed and whether or not something could be done.”

Over time, other experiences underscored that curiosity and homed in on what would eventually become the topic of her PhD dissertation. Marifian took a family trip to Armenia, her ancestral homeland, where she also saw a lot of poverty. In college, she took a macroeconomics course in the spring of 2008, right as the financial crisis was unfolding.

After college, she got a job working at the Federal Reserve Bank in its economic research division. She remembers how one day while chatting with an acquaintance, she found herself speaking passionately about educational inequities.

“It just dawned on me that I wanted to research that,” she said.

Marifian applied for the PhD program at the UW­–Madison Department of Economics, attracted by its reputation as a strong department and the many world-class economics faculty who research education. Marifian added that the fact that UW–Madison has a great School of Education was also an important factor.

At UW–Madison, Marifian became part of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research’s Interdisciplinary Training Program (ITP). Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, ITP supports and trains students from a variety of disciplines who are doing education research.

“[ITP] gave me a community of researchers who think about education issues from different methodological and theoretical approaches,” Marifian said. “I think it’s so important for us, as scholars, to be exposed to work on similar topics, but that’s thought about really differently.”

Marifian is also a graduate research fellow at the Institute for Research on Poverty, a research assistant at the Student Success Through Applied Research (SSTAR) Lab, and was an intern at the Division of Enrollment Management on campus, where she evaluated how Bucky’s Tuition Promise impacted enrollment in its first year. Watching financial aid processes from behind the curtain was helpful in her development as a scholar, Marifian said.

“It makes me a better researcher to learn what happens on the ground, and the practice of the stuff that I’m studying,” she said.

Now, for her dissertation, Marifian focuses on the effect of TV advertising on college enrollment decisions. She was inspired to write on the topic when she saw an ad appear on YouTube for a for-profit college.

“It was very clear that the ad was targeting certain types of individuals. I’m thinking to myself, I study education and it’s hard for me to determine, ‘Is this a legitimate school that would provide a lot of value?’” Marifian said. “How are people who are not as privileged as me, who don’t have the same resources and background, going to respond to an ad like this?”

Through an economic lens, college TV ads can be viewed as a positive or negative factor. On the positive side, Marifian said advertising can make prospective students aware of colleges that they weren’t before, and those colleges may be a good choice for them. They might also get a better sense of the characteristics of the school. On the other hand, ads that provide false or misleading information might lead students to make worse choices for themselves than they otherwise would have, leading to a negative effect.

In her work, Marifian is interested in the effect on vulnerable students, such as low-income, marginalized, and non-traditional students – all groups who may not have as much knowledge about college choices or have family members who have graduated college and can advise them.

“There are a lot of reports in the media about how these schools target veterans, people of color, and single parents,” Marifian said. “I’m interested in issues of equity in education, so I was inspired to learn how these ads are impacting students’ choices and whether or not advertising is helping them be better off or worse off.”

To get at this question for her dissertation, Marifian is developing a model of individuals’ college choices and colleges’ advertising decisions. By combining aggregate data about colleges from Department of Education surveys with detailed information about college advertisements from The Nielsen Company, she’ll be able to use the model to simulate changes in pieces of the puzzle — like government regulations of college advertising — and see how those changes might affect where students enroll in college, or how much colleges spend on advertising or charge for tuition.

Marifian received an American Educational Research Association (AERA) dissertation grant, funded by the National Science Foundation, to support this work. These competitive grants support dissertation research that examines large-scale education data, making them a perfect fit for Marifian’s project.

Before learning she had received the grant, Marifian said she had applied to many others – and was rejected. She knew she was a good fit for the AERA grant but didn’t expect to be one of this year’s nine awardees.

“I was so excited because that meant I could keep doing research and be able to really focus on it,” she said. She has also participated in an AERA professional development conference and will present her work at the upcoming AERA Annual Conference.

As someone who enjoys research, Marifian noted how important it was to her to have funding to be able to focus on her research without other work obligations.

“Having fellowship funding to be able to prioritize your research is such a privilege, and I’ve been really fortunate to have that during my time here,” she said. “I try to advocate for giving fellowships as much as possible because I think it really does make a difference. At least it did for me.”