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Meet Ed.D. Marshal Preeya Pandya Mbekeani

Exploring the impact of income levels on education decisions.
Preeya Pandya Mbekeani

When Preeya Pandya Mbekeani, Ed.M.‘10, Ed.D.’20, first started the doctoral program at HGSE in 2013, she knew she was enrolling in a graduate degree. What she did not know was that she was also embarking on a new phase of her life’s journey.

“Coming into the program, I didn’t anticipate so much ‘life’ to happen,” reflects Mbekeani, who has been named a 2021 class marshal. “I had a number of major life events, both exciting (having three kids, moving from Boston to Chicago) and difficult (children with serious illness, and the death of my father, among others) that took place during my doctoral studies. At times, I had to take time off to focus on my family. Being in the doctoral program allowed me flexibility to do that, but there was also a feeling of being up against the doctoral clock.”

Despite the challenges she faced throughout her time at Harvard, Mbekeani graduated in November with an Ed.D. in quantitative policy analysis. Her dissertation, which explored the impacts of parental behaviors and income level on college achievement, provided a nuanced and necessary understanding of the role of family in the college-going process.

“Preeya’s dissertation is outstanding for its substance, for its methodological sophistication, and for Preeya’s meticulous attention to detail,” writes Professor Daniel Koretz, Mbekeani’s adviser. “In contrast to some earlier research, she found that the income gap in both enrollment and college completion has narrowed. Preeya painstakingly analyzed this discrepancy and showed that earlier studies had misestimated trends because of changes in the timing of students’ enrollment.”

Since leaving Harvard in November, Mbekeani has continued to investigate how inequalities related to class, race, and school quality during high school contribute to inequality in college access and completion. She’ll be starting as a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University this summer. While she is excited about the opportunities unfolding before her, she is also filled with gratitude for those who helped her along the way.

“There are many unsung heroes in our HGSE and Harvard communities,” says Mbekeani. “I am thankful to the team in the Doctoral Programs Office, the Gutman librarians, the staff in the Gutman café, administrative staff, and faculty assistants in particular.”

Your work deals with impact of income levels on education decisions. How did you decide to focus on these questions?
While I’ve always been concerned with educational inequality, my specific interest in income-based inequality stemmed from my experience as a counselor and my experiences while in the doctoral program. Prior to pursuing my doctorate, I served as a college counselor, and I worked with students who faced myriad challenges in their efforts to enroll and persist in college. Many of these challenges were financial.

On the academic side, in my first few years in the doctoral program, I served as a research assistant for Dr. Richard Murnane and Dr. Sean Reardon (Stanford) who were studying the relationship between rising income inequality and educational outcomes for students from families of different income backgrounds. At the same, I was participating in the seminar sequence for the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy, and I was learning about the growing body of evidence which has shown that the starkest economic differences exist among families with children. Taken together, these experiences led to my interest in exploring the patterns and potential explanations for income-based gaps in college enrollment and completion and parental behaviors aimed at supporting the college-going process.

Describe your dissertation, Essays on Income-Based Inequality in Postsecondary Education.
There has been widespread concern about both widening educational attainment gaps between children from upper- and lower-income families and widening disparities in parental behaviors that may be associated with widening attainment gaps, as income inequality has increased over the last several decades. My dissertation comprised two studies that examined income-based gaps in attainment and parental behaviors between adolescents from families at the 90th and 10th percentile ranks of the income distribution (upper- and lower-income, respectively) for three cohorts of high school students between 1992 and 2013.

What did you conclude?
I found that parents’ aspirations for their adolescents’ educational attainment increased across both income groups, with a larger increase among parents of low-income students, resulting in a narrowing of the gap. In contrast, income gaps in parents’ financial investments for college and student college entrance exam preparation and test-taking widened. I examined potential explanations for growing gaps and found support primarily for changing associations between income and parental involvement rather than rising income inequality. My findings suggest that considering ways to reduce or remove barriers related to college entrance exams and higher education financing for low-income students and families could have positive downstream effects on these students’ access to college.

In the second study, two policy-relevant findings emerged. First, I found that low-income students were increasingly likely to enroll in college several years after their high school graduation. Second, when low-income students enrolled in college many years after high school, they enrolled almost exclusively in two-year institutions. Neither of these trends bode well for students’ likelihood of college completion. However, interventions aimed at supporting the completion of students who enroll non-traditionally could have meaningful impacts on their labor market outcomes and social mobility.

Was there one surprising thing that you learned from your project?
First, I think we tend to hear simplified narratives about gaps in educational outcomes, such as wealthy parents are hoarding opportunities or college attainment gaps are widening. While these things may be true, the reality is more complicated. In my study, I found that across income groups, parents, on average, had increased their involvement and support of their adolescents’ college-going process. For low-income parents, these increases were largest when it came to activities that did not require significant investments of time or money. For example, parents reported frequent conversations with their adolescents about college going and college entrance exam preparation.

Second, I found that large shares of students from low-income backgrounds were enrolling in college; it was just not occurring in the “traditional” manner (i.e. full-time enrollment or right after high school).

Finally, as a researcher who is interested in questions related to family income and student educational attainment, it surprised me to learn that we lack consistent, high-quality, national data on student college outcomes by family income background.

Can you reflect on the HGSE experience and what it has meant to you?
I’ve been in and around HGSE since I started my master’s degree in 2008. HGSE has been my “home” for many years; in fact, I’ve been here longer than any other institution in my adult life. As a result, there is a lot about the experience that has shaped me, both as a scholar and as a person.

I am grateful to my dissertation committee, Professors Daniel Koretz, Bridget Terry Long, and Sasha Killewald (sociology). Working with scholars across three social science disciplines has deeply enriched my thinking and my work. I am also incredibly grateful to Richard Murnane for his enduring support. All four of these individuals have mentored and supported me.

My relationships with my doctoral peers, some of whom are both my friends and colleagues/co-authors, have sustained me. Whether it be lunches, writing groups, playdates with our kids, or (long) MBTA rides, the friendship, collaboration, and critical feedback they have provided has enriched this journey.

Finally, there were many people beyond my academic community who supported me in my work and for whom I am incredibly grateful. I am thankful for my family and friends, to the students and youth with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work as a teacher and counselor, and to the many amazing caregivers who have nurtured my children so I could pursue this degree.