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S. Michael Gaddis

Assistant Professor of Sociology and Demography, The Pennsylvania State University


The study of stratification and inequality is a cornerstone of sociological research. My research agenda is centered in that tradition and incorporates two separate, although sometimes intersecting, lines of inquiry: racial discrimination and educational inequality. Although quantitatively focused, I have collected original data in nearly half of my research projects. I address a number of important debates fundamental to the study of inequality using innovative methods including field and survey experiments.

My primary area of inquiry concerns our understanding of racial discrimination. Modern social science evidence of racial discrimination stems mostly from a type of field experiment known as an audit study, which matches candidates on all characteristics except race to examine racial differences in outcomes. Public policy, in part, has driven the need for such studies in order to record covert behaviors that many individuals openly deny. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed various forms of discrimination and forced actors wishing to engage in discrimination to take more covert actions. In response, researchers increasingly turned to the experimental audit method to directly measure behaviors rather than ask about attitudes and beliefs. I have embraced this method but I also deeply interrogate the method in an attempt to improve scientific investigation of racial discrimination.

Audit and Field Experiment Methods

I am currently working on a number of projects exploring improvements to the audit method. I organized an ASA Special Session on Audits and Field Experiments (#313) at the 2015 annual meeting in Chicago. Along with a number of distinguished scholars in this area, I am now working on an edited volume on the audit method tentatively titled Audit Studies: Behind the Scenes with Theory, Method, and Nuance. This book is under contract with Springer for their Methodos series and due out in 2017.

How Black are Lakisha and Jamal? The Effects of Name Perception and Selection on Social Science Measurement of Racial Discrimination

S. Michael Gaddis

Under Review, Available at SSRN and SocArXiv.

Abstract: Online audit studies have emerged as the primary method to examine racial discrimination. This research uses names to signal race (e.g. Jamal Washington), but less than 1 out of every 5 studies scientifically examines any relevant data regarding the perceptions of race from names. Do individuals perceive race from different names in heterogeneous ways and if so, can this explain the results of previous audit studies of racial discrimination? I conduct a survey experiment that asks respondents to identify the race they associate with a series of names. I alter the names each respondent is given, whether last names are included, and whether those last names racially match the first name they are given. The results suggest that names more commonly given by highly educated black mothers (e.g. Jalen and Nia) are less likely to be recognized as black than names given by less educated black mothers (e.g. DaShawn and Tanisha). These differences in the racial perception a name conveys predict within-study differences in response rates from employment, housing, and other audit studies conducted in the U.S. in the past decade. The results suggest that the entire body of social science evidence on racial discrimination operates under a misguided assumption that all black names are alike and the findings from audit studies are likely extremely sensitive to name selection.

Educational Credentials and Discrimination

Discrimination in the Credential Society: An Audit Study of Race and College Selectivity in the Labor Market

S. Michael Gaddis

Social Forces, 93(4):1451-79.

Abstract: Racial inequality in economic outcomes, particularly among the college educated, persists throughout US society. Scholars debate whether this inequality stems from racial differences in human capital (e.g., college selectivity, GPA, college major) or employer discrimination against black job candidates. However, limited measures of human capital and the inherent difficulties in measuring discrimination using observational data make determining the cause of racial differences in labor-market outcomes a difficult endeavor. In this research, I examine employment opportunities for white and black graduates of elite top-ranked universities versus high-ranked but less selective institutions. Using an audit design, I create matched candidate pairs and apply for 1,008 jobs on a national job-search website. I also exploit existing birth-record data in selecting names to control for differences across social class within racialized names. The results show that although a credential from an elite university results in more employer responses for all candidates, black candidates from elite universities only do as well as white candidates from less selective universities. Moreover, race results in a double penalty: When employers respond to black candidates, it is for jobs with lower starting salaries and lower prestige than those of white peers. These racial differences suggest that a bachelor’s degree, even one from an elite institution, cannot fully counteract the importance of race in the labor market. Thus, both discrimination and differences in human capital contribute to racial economic inequality.

A Field Experiment on Associate Degrees and Certificates: Statistical Discrimination, Stigma, Signal Boost, and Signal Saturation

S. Michael Gaddis

Abstract: The number of students enrolling in for-profit colleges and universities over the past two decades has skyrocketed, yet little is known about how much these degrees benefit individuals in the labor market. The responses of policymakers, the media, and the general public regarding the value of for-profit institutions are often extreme; some believe that these institutions reduce educational inequality while others suggest these institutions encourage students to take on massive amounts of debt for no real economic payoff. In this article, I argue that the high profile negative attention toward for-profit institutions, particularly those with a large online presence, has created a stigma toward degree holders from for-profit institutions. This stigma, in turn, may play out in one of two scenarios. First, the stigma has the opportunity to turn an educational credential into a negative credential, much like that of a criminal record (Pager, 2003). If a for-profit associate’s degree becomes a negative credential, we should find that anyone with a for-profit associate’s degree performs worse than anyone with a nonprofit associate’s degree in the hiring decision phase of the labor market. However, the stigma against for-profit degree holders may not turn the degree into a negative credential but rather add uncertainty to the information conveyed by the credential. In this second scenario, the uncertainty of the degree may force employers to fall back on racial stereotypes during the hiring decision phase and thus only penalize black for-profit degree holders. To examine the effects of for-profit versus nonprofit associate degrees in the labor market, I conducted a field experiment and submitted over 5,700 resumes to job openings online in five U.S. cities. I find that only black applicants receive lower callback rates when their resumes include a for-profit online associate’s degree. Moreover, white and black callback rates for nonprofit associate’s degree holders are statistically indistinguishable. These results suggest that the for-profit online degree is not a negative credential for all, but rather results in statistical discrimination against black degree holders only.

Discrimination and Residential Segregation

Finding a Roommate on Craigslist: Racial Discrimination and Residential Segregation in Urban Areas

S. Michael Gaddis and Raj Ghoshal

Available at SSRN.

Abstract: This study uses experimental methods to investigate covert racial discrimination in “roommate wanted” ads on Craigslist. Roommate relationships include significant social dimensions, and are an important site through which segregation may be reproduced or broken down, but have received very little attention by researchers. We develop fictitious racially-coded female identities for white, black, Hispanic, Chinese, and Indian room-seekers. We conduct an audit study and respond to over 1,500 “roommate wanted” advertisements across three metropolitan areas. Our emails express interest in the roommate-wanted ad, and mention that the sender is college-educated and employed full-time. We monitor response rates in the aggregate and within census tracts of varying characteristics. We find severe discrimination against African Americans, Hispanics, and Chinese-origin individuals. Asians with “Americanized” first names are treated equally to whites, while those with traditional Indian and Americanized Latina names face moderate discrimination. Patterns of discrimination by neighborhood characteristics yield better access to upward mobility for Asian Americans than for underrepresented minority group members. Our findings reveal an important social mechanism that constricts integration and opportunity, shed new light on Asians’ and Latinas’ social standing, reveal important interactions of race and presumed nativity, and show the ongoing relevance of race.

Arab American Housing Discrimination, Ethnic Competition, and the Contact Hypothesis

S. Michael Gaddis and Raj Ghoshal

The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 660(1):282-99.

Abstract: This study uses a field experiment to study bias against living with Arab American women, a group whose position in the U.S. race system remains uncertain. We developed fictitious female white and Arab American identities and used the audit method to respond to 560 roommate-wanted advertisements in four metro areas: Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, and Houston. To focus on social—rather than purely economic—biases, all responses identified the sender as college-educated and employed and were written in grammatically correct English. We compare the number of replies received, finding that Arab-origin names receive about 40 percent fewer replies. We then model variation in discrimination rates by proximity to mosques, geographic concentration of mosques, and the percentage of Arabs living in a census tract so as to test ethnic competition theory and the contact hypothesis. In Los Angeles and New York, greater discrimination occurred in neighborhoods with the highest concentration of mosques.

Social and Cultural Capital

What's In a Relationship? An Examination of Social Capital, Race, and Class in Mentoring Relationships

S. Michael Gaddis

Social Forces, 90(4):1237-69

Abstract: After twenty-five years of intense scrutiny, social capital remains an important yet highly debated concept in social science research. This research uses data from youths and mentors in several chapters of Big Brothers/Big Sisters to assess the importance of different mentoring relationship characteristics in creating positive outcomes among youths. The literature on social capital suggests that key characteristics are: (1) the amount of time spent between individuals, (2) racial similarity, (3) level of trust, (4) social class difference, and (5) intergenerational closure. I examine the effects of these social capital measures on academic and deviant behavioral outcomes and run models using propensity score weights to address selection bias. The results indicate that both the amount of time spent in a relationship and the level of trust consistently have positive effects for youths. Counter to what some theory suggests, race-matching and closure between parent and mentor have limited effects and social class difference between individuals has no significant effect on any of the examined outcomes. These findings have important implications for future work on social capital and adolescent relationships in general.

The Influence of Habitus in the Relationship Between Cultural Capital and Academic Achievement

S. Michael Gaddis

Social Science Research, 42(1):1-13

Abstract: Scholars routinely use cultural capital theory in an effort to explain class differences in academic success but often overlook the key concept of habitus. Rich, longstanding debates within the literature suggest the need for a closer examination of the individual effects of cultural capital and habitus. Drawing upon the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, I use a longitudinal dataset to examine the effects of multiple operationalizations of cultural capital on academic achievement and the mediating effects of habitus. Using first difference models to control for time-invariant unobserved characteristics, I find that typical operationalizations of cultural capital (i.e. high-arts participation and reading habits) have positive effects on GPA that are completely mediated through habitus. These results stress the importance of habitus in the relationship between cultural capital and academic achievement for disadvantaged youth.

Social Capital in the Creation of Cultural Capital and Habitus

S. Michael Gaddis

Abstract: While scholars acknowledge the importance of both social and cultural capital in educational inequality, no research has examined how social capital might lead to increased cultural capital. In this research, I use quasi-experimental longitudinal data from mentoring relationships to examine how mentors of different education levels affect youths' cultural capital and habitus. The results suggest that only college-educated mentors have some positive effects on youths' cultural capital and only for middle- and high-SES youth. Additionally, although all mentors have some positive effects on habitus for youth, college-educated mentors have larger positive effects on habitus for low-SES youth. These results suggest that although this type of social capital has positive effects for all types of youth, already advantaged youth reap larger benefits.

School Poverty

Exposure to Classroom Poverty and Test Score Achievement: Contextual Effects or Selection?

Douglas L. Lauen and S. Michael Gaddis

American Journal of Sociology, 118(4):943-79

Abstract: It is widely believed that impoverished contexts harm children. Disentangling the effects of family background from the effects of other social contexts, however, is complex, making causal claims difficult to verify. This study examines the effect of exposure to classroom poverty on student test achievement using data on a cohort of children followed from third through eighth grade. Cross-sectional methods reveal a substantial negative association between exposure to high-poverty classrooms and test scores; this association grows with grade level, becoming especially large for middle school students. Growth models, however, produce much smaller effects of classroom poverty exposure on academic achievement. Even smaller effects emerge from student fixed-effects models that control for time-invariant unobservables and from marginal structural models that adjust for observable time-dependent confounding. These findings suggest that causal claims about the effects of classroom poverty exposure on achievement may be unwarranted.

Educational Accountability under NCLB

Shining a Light or Fumbling in the Dark? The Effects of NCLB's Subgroup-Specific Accountability on Student Achievement

Douglas L. Lauen and S. Michael Gaddis

Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 34(2):185-208

Abstract: The theory of action behind NCLB is that “shining a light” on subgroup performance will increase reading and math test scores. Using a panel of all students in grades 3-8 in North Carolina from 2000-2008 (N=1.7 million students in 1800 schools), we construct a placebo test and estimate double- and triple-differenced models with school fixed effects. We find that subgroup-specific accountability threats from NCLB have positive effects for minority and disadvantaged students. Larger positive effects emerge for the lowest achieving schools rather than schools near the margin of passing. We find some evidence of education triage based on student prior achievement in math, but not in reading, a finding we attribute to increases in the rigor of state standards in math.

School Accountability and the Black-White Test Score Gap

S. Michael Gaddis and Douglas L. Lauen

Social Science Research, 44:15-31

Abstract: Since at least the 1960s, researchers have closely examined the respective roles of families, neighborhoods, and schools in producing the black–white achievement gap. Although many researchers minimize the ability of schools to eliminate achievement gaps, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) increased pressure on schools to do so by 2014. In this study, we examine the effects of NCLB’s subgroup-specific accountability pressure on changes in black–white math and reading test score gaps using a school-level panel dataset on all North Carolina public elementary and middle schools between 2001 and 2009. Using difference-in-difference models with school fixed effects, we find that accountability pressure reduces black–white achievement gaps by raising mean black achievement without harming mean white achievement. We find no differential effects of accountability pressure based on the racial composition of schools, but schools with more affluent populations are the most successful at reducing the black–white math achievement gap. Thus, our findings suggest that school-based interventions have the potential to close test score gaps, but differences in school composition and resources play a significant role in the ability of schools to reduce racial inequality.

Accountability Pressure, Academic Standards, and Educational Triage

Douglas L. Lauen and S. Michael Gaddis

Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(1):127-147

Abstract: Holding schools accountable for test score levels increases test scores for the average student, but a growing and contradictory literature finds that this type of accountability pressure may disproportionately benefit the so called “bubble kids,” those near grade level standards. We argue that incentives to triage increase with the rigor of state standards, a possibility overlooked in prior research. Using student-level panel data from all elementary and middle school students in North Carolina, we exploit two natural experiments at two different points in time: an increase in the rigor of state standards in math in 2006 and reading standards in 2008. We find that increasing academic standards increases NCLB accountability threat effects but also has disparate impacts on low and high achieving students. Moreover, adverse effects on low achieving students are largest in the lowest achieving schools. Our findings suggest that the combination of status-based accountability and an increase in standards may increase the incentives to triage based on student prior achievement. Given that virtually all states are on the cusp of implementing more rigorous Common Core Standards, therefore, policymakers must carefully consider the design of accountability systems in an era of rising standards.

Mental Health and Stigma on College Campuses

Variations in Student Mental Health and Treatment Utilization Across U.S. Colleges and Universities

Sarah K. Lipson, S. Michael Gaddis, Justin Heinze, Katie Beck, and Daniel Eisenberg

Journal of American College Health, 63(6):388-396

Abstract: On college and university campuses, mental health problems are highly prevalent, appear to be increasing, and are typically untreated. Concerns about the state of student mental health are well-documented. A growing body of literature has and continues to inform best practices for campus mental health education, prevention, and treatment. That said, little is known about whether and how student mental health and treatment utilization vary across the diverse institutions of higher education in the United States. In the present study, we take a first step in this direction by examining variations in student mental health and treatment utilization using data on 43,210 students at 72 colleges and universities that participated in The Healthy Minds Study between 2007 and 2013. Our analyses focus on associations between institutional characteristics and student mental health outcomes. We find the following institutional characteristics are associated with poorer student mental health: doctoral-granting, public, large enrollment, and non-residential. After accounting for differences in student mental health across institutions, we find that students at doctorate-granting institutions and baccalaureate colleges, institutions with small enrollments, and schools with strong residential systems are more likely to receive treatment. We find no clearly distinguishable patterns between student mental health or treatment utilization and institutional admissions selectivity or graduation rate. These results suggest further research is needed to explore why these disparities exist and what policies might be best suited to reduce them.

Poverty and Welfare Policy

'I Don't Agree with Giving Cash': A Survey Experiment Examining Support for Public Assistance

Colin S. Campbell and S. Michael Gaddis

Forthcoming in Social Science Quarterly.

Abstract: Existing sociological research on support for anti-poverty programs largely focuses on broad categories of welfare or assistance to the poor rather than particular types of transfers. Using an experimental survey design and mixed methods research, we examine whether support for anti-poverty programs is consistent across different types of anti-poverty programs. We find that programs that offer benefits in-kind are more popular than cash transfers. Food stamps and child care subsidies, in particular, garner greater support than cash welfare while housing assistance falls in a middle ground between food stamps/childcare subsidies and cash welfare. However, when public assistance comes through an increase in personal tax obligation, only food stamps remain more popular than cash welfare. The qualitative findings show that when evaluating anti-poverty programs, respondents adopt one of two perspectives: (1) cash assistance is problematic but other forms of assistance are acceptable or (2) any assistance is problematic. We conclude with a discussion of policy implications and how these findings may inform future sociological research.

Intergenerational Mobility

The Transmission of Educational Advantage across Three Generations: Grandparent Effects and Spousal Mediation in the Second Generation

S. Michael Gaddis and Jonathan Daw

Revised and Resubmitted to Social Forces, Available at SSRN.

Abstract: The publication of research examining three-generational mobility processes has accelerated during the past half-decade, due in part to new and expanded data that now include large sample sizes of families with more than two generations. However, this area of inquiry is relatively new and little is known about the mechanisms of intergenerational effects beyond parent-child ties. In this article, we draw upon theory and research on intergenerational mobility, maternal education, educational homogamy, and status exchange to propose a new potential mechanism of the transmission of educational attainment from grandparents to grandchildren in the United States: second generation spousal mediation. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, we find evidence that grandparent’s educational attainment positively effects their child’s spouse’s educational attainment net of child’s educational attainment. This pathway then mediates the effect of grandparent’s educational attainment on grandchild’s educational attainment. Further analysis suggests no gender differences in the spousal mediation effect. Overall, this research suggests that grandparent’s educational attainment matters to grandchildren, but is partially mediated through child’s spouse’s educational attainment. We suggest that three-generational transmission of educational advantage is a complex topic in need of further, careful examination of original mechanisms.

Education in 3G: Heterogeneity of Intergenerational Educational Mobility in the U.S.

Jonathan Daw and S. Michael Gaddis

Available at SSRN.

Abstract: Following Mare’s (2010) presidential address to the Population Association of America, a great deal of research has been conducted on the dynamics of intergenerational mobility and socioeconomic inequality. Due to this relatively short time span, however, comparatively little is known about the when, where, how, and why of intergenerational effects beyond parent-child ties. In this article, we examine educational attainment across three generations using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. We find evidence that grandparental education is associated with grandchild education net of parental education, but that association is greatly reduced once spousal education is accounted for – suggesting spousal mediation as a key mechanism of the intergenerational transmission of educational advantage. We also find tentative evidence in favor of the augmentation hypothesis that grandparent and parent educational attainment interactively influence grandchild education. However, the augmentation hypothesis is not supported in spousal mediation models nor in cousin fixed effects models, suggesting that these results may be spurious. Contrary to prior work outside the U.S., we find no evidence of stronger grandparent effects when grandparents were still alive when the grandchild reached age 6. Supporting the claim that genetic transmission may partially explain these relationships, we find weak evidence that grandparent effects are stronger for biological grandparents than non-biological ones. Overall, this research suggests that grandparent’s educational attainment matters, but is mostly mediated through child’s spouse’s educational attainment. We suggest that three-generational transmission of educational advantage is a complex topic in need of further, careful study.