referee report

The first assignment consists of a referee report – an evaluation of a scholarly article. I have selected the following by Gordon Winston – it is a well-known article by an expert, lucidly analyzing an important topic. It is very relevant for us, as we are concerned about the economics of higher education – Winston focuses on the nature of highly selective/elite private universities.


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Winston, Gordon. “Subsidies, Hierarchy and Peers: The Awkward Economics of Higher Education.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 13, no. 1 (1999): 13-36.

(Feel free to skip parts of Winston paper that talks about concepts you may not be familiar with, like non-distribution constraint (when discussing non-profits). These should not affect your understanding of his main points and insight.)


You can read some background material in the paper by Charles Clotfelter in the same issue:

Charles Clotfelter, “The Familiar but Curious Economics of Higher Education”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 13, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 3-12.


The following paper by Caroline Hoxby, some insights from which we briefly discussed in class this week, has a nice discussion on the nature of selective universities, and how they significantly different from non-selective colleges.

Hoxby, Caroline M. (2014). The Economics of Online Postsecondary Education: MOOCs, Nonselective Education, and Highly Selective Education, NBER Working Paper 19816, January.


Below are the questions and issues I expect you to cover in your report. The report should not be more than 5 pages long, with 1.5 spacing and one-inch margins. I am happy to discuss any issue related to the assignment, in class or in individual meetings or via email.


i) The importance/motivation/background of the issue. For example, you can talk about how knowing the economics behind higher education will help us in framing proper policies, and in assessing the impact of various trends in financing, enrollment, etc.

ii) The conclusions of the paper, and its contribution. What do we learn from reading the paper, in particular about the nature of a highly selective university?

iii) How do recent trends in state subsidies and college prices affect your understanding and interpretation of this paper?

iv) (Brief) How do what we have learned in our discussion of the for-profit sector influence your reading of Winston? In particular, does it surprise you that there are so few for-profits among four-year colleges?

v) We will be discussing peer effects in higher education next week. How does your understanding of these peer effects – based on your reading of the assigned chapter and the class discussion – help you in critically analyzing what Winston is saying?

vi) How do you think online learning might complicate the picture?


Other than the length of the paper, there are not many rules to follow. Feel free to consult any course materials, including lecture notes and assigned articles, commentaries, book extracts, etc.



(A digression: Though in this assignment we talk mostly about highly selective/elite private not-for-profit universities, they are not the universe of not-for-profit private four-year colleges in the U.S. A report by The Third Way points out that now there are a thousand of these colleges in the country, enrolling 2.7 million students. This report highlights what it calls “a stunning level of institutional failure” in these colleges – half of their students fail to graduate, many who graduate still fail to earn sufficient incomes, and many others are unable to repay their loans. This report is beyond the scope of this assignment, but if you are interested in exploring related issues for your final paper, it is worth a look – Particularly so as it gives you vital tips regarding using the rich trove of data contained in the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard website.

Still, it is important to acknowledge the importance of elite not-for-profit universities – how many of the most recent U.S. Supreme Court justices do you think did NOT attend Harvard or Yale Law Schools? Find the answer at Note that Neil Gorsuch, the latest addition to the U.S. Supreme Court, did not break the tradition (he did attend Columbia too). And Brett Kavanaugh, currently under consideration, attended Yale.

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