“How can we improve education?” pondered Belén Hípola (‘22), a question that greatly influenced her future studies regarding education policy and economics.
Belén, who hails from Madrid, graduated from Universidad Complutense with two Bachelor’s Degrees, one in Mathematics and Statistics and the other in Economics.
At age 17, Belén was not sure what to study. At first, she considered literature or computer science. She decided to study economics and mathematics since it allowed her to marry “abstract mathematical theories and social sciences.”
“Economics is applied and grounded in the real world, which combines my interests in social sciences, humanities, and science,” she explains. Within her studies, she found her niche; the economics of education.
She wrote her undergraduate thesis, “School Choice: Theory and Applications,” under the supervision of Dr. Carmelo Rodríguez-Álvarez. While reading existing literature on school choice, she realized how much she wanted to continue for a Master’s Degree to learn how to apply economics to education policy.
“I was not sure if I wanted to go for a PhD, but I wanted more of an understanding of advanced methods and knowing how current research is done,” Belén explains.
Belén was attracted to Columbia University because of the great professors in the Economics department and at Teachers College, where she also took outside electives while at Columbia. Belén is thankful that the program allowed her to take these outside classes, such as Professor Scott-Clayton’s course on Advanced Causal Methods Applied to Education Policy. Belén also made new friends from outside of the department in the process.
During her second semester, she also spoke with Dr. Miguel Urquiola, as he “had very interesting work on the economics of education”; he became her thesis advisor.
Belén lights up when speaking about her thesis, “her favorite part of the program.” Belén studied grade retention policies in Brazil. She started being interested in this topic as an undergraduate. In her native Spain, students repeat a grade more frequently than in other EU countries; if a student fails more than three courses a year, they must repeat the entire grade. As Belén explains, while there is a discussion of changing this policy, there is a lot of pushback, with the mindset that “You need to deserve to pass the degree.” For instance, they argue that if it is more flexible, it will disincentivize students to work hard by giving students a “free pass.”
“What are the effects of this policy on lifetime earnings or the likelihood of dropping out?” Belén explains to me. “We have to change the framing of this debate and think about it in terms of whether the empirical evidence warrants this rule, which is why I was interested in this topic.”
Belén chose to look at Brazil because of the “school data available online, specifically of Brasília, and they had these policy changes, regarding grade retention policy.” Also, Portuguese and Spanish are related languages, making it easier for her to understand the data.
Her hard work certainly paid off. Belén saw several messages from the Department about Synthesis, a competition organized by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences where Master’s students have to present their thesis in only three minutes.
“I do not like public speaking and I am a bit shy, but I thought this was a good opportunity to face this situation, because it is something more casual, not as high stakes, as well as providing me the opportunity to talk about my topic,” Belén explains. She adds, “Synthesizing your thesis to three minutes is a challenge; since it would be challenging to talk about the method, I focused more on the question of my work to walk them through the research.”
“My objective was to do the presentation well and make the audience interested in the topic.” She adds that the presentation was “a bit overwhelming at first, with the cameras and lights.”
However, despite potential nerves, Belén achieved first place in the competition.
Belén also took on hands-on research at Columbia, being awarded the PER Fellowship where she worked as an RA for Dr. Douglas Almond, taking on data analysis and research tasks in environmental economics.
“The RA-ship offered the possibility to experience research (with great researchers), in environmental economics, a new field that I wasn’t familiar with,” explains Belén.
Furthermore, in the fall, Belén also worked as a content developer for Dr. Rajiv Sethi in making learning economics more accessible by creating an online platform with modules on inequality with interactive features. For the 2022-2023 semester, she also had the opportunity to work as a TA for Dr. Sethi’s Intro to Economic Reasoning class at Barnard.
When asked how she unwound from her hectic schedule while in the program, she says she loved spending her afternoons at Central Park in the Spring to see all the beautiful flowers with friends. She also had the opportunity to explore the United States, traveling to San Francisco, Austin, Boston, Rhode Island, and upstate NY.
She says, “Since the coursework is intense, I also really appreciated the Happy Hours, meeting some students and of course drinking some wine.” She made lifelong friends in and out of the program at Columbia. Additionally, the cohort bonded as “We’re all going through it together.”
“Problem sets were very intense, but I learned a lot which prepared me for my future PhD coursework as always knowing the dynamics of problem sets, theory, and exams is very helpful for what is to come.”
For future students, she recommends “using the resources that the program gives you” as there are “many opportunities and the best parts come from cultivating your interests and going beyond the coursework.” She also recommends that you do not just worry about getting A’s in all your classes, considering that “there’s a lot more to the program than that.” For instance, she credits the wide variety of courses in helping to shape her interests, calling her Econ Policy course “her favorite in-department course” because it had an interesting approach to teaching economics.
She also advises future students to attend seminars at Teachers College and within the department as they have “three each day on lots of subfields, led by many good professors in and out of school, as well as PhD students,” noting this from attending many Development and Applied Micro sessions.
Belén will start her Ph.D. at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, this fall. She chose it because they have a great Economics department, and many of the professors’ work aligns with her interests. At Bocconi, she hopes to delve deeper into her research on grade retention policy, perhaps looking more at Spain, although it is not as easy to access data in Spain. She is also interested in development and labor economics and hopes to explore her interests in these areas of study in the future, hoping to go into research that impacts policymaking.
Watch Belén’s Synthesis presentation here.
By Gabrielle Okun, Economics MA Program Coordinator