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New faculty Lesley Turner: Public policy through an economics lens

by Sep. 30, 2019, 4:25 PM

MyVU is spotlighting a select group of new faculty for 2019-20. Read more profiles in the series.

One of the hottest policy discussions today centers on college affordability and the role government can play in making higher education accessible to more students. Lesley Turner blends a passion for public policy with the tools of economics in search of those answers.

A native of Ypsilanti, Michigan, Turner came to economics by way of the National Poverty Research Center at the University of Michigan, where she worked as a research assistant while pursuing a sociology major. Her mentor there, economist Sheldon Danziger, gave her an early glimpse at how she could approach societal challenges through an economics lens.

After earning a master’s degree in public policy at Michigan, Turner moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a consulting firm that evaluated state and federal anti-poverty programs.

“It was great to see so many programs on the ground level,” she says. “I got to get my hands dirty with lots of data, but ultimately, I realized that working on government contracts doesn’t always allow you to work on the kind of questions you’re passionate about.” She returned to academia to pursue a Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University.

As a professor at the University of Maryland, Turner was able to design policy experiments to study the impact that even very small differences can make in student outcomes at both the K–12 and college levels. For example, at an urban community college, she found that students who received federal student loan information in addition to their scholarship offers were more likely to take out federal loans and ultimately did much better in school.

“There has been a lot of discussion about how to reduce college debt, but it’s important to understand what else changes if we try to direct students away from taking out loans without making other adjustments.”

“There has been a lot of discussion about how to reduce college debt,” Turner says, “but it’s important to understand what else changes if we try to direct students away from taking out loans without making other adjustments.”

Turner recently returned to the policy sphere for a yearlong fellowship with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “It gave me a useful perspective on the role that academic research could—but doesn’t always—play in policymaking. I was very encouraged that the folks I was working with were interested in what researchers were finding,” she says. “It made me commit to making my research more accessible to policymakers.”

Turner will begin teaching in fall 2020, when she’ll lead a graduate-level course on public economics and an undergraduate course on the economics of education.

She is looking forward to getting to know her new economics colleagues as well as forging connections with education policy scholars at Peabody College and education policymakers in the state Capitol. “The state of Tennessee is doing really innovative things in higher education,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to working on state policy issues.”

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