Upjohn Institute announces 2021 Dissertation Award winner and honorable mentions

Collage of Dissertation Award winners Stansbury, Bleemer and Emanuel

The Upjohn Institute is pleased to announce its 2021 Dissertation Award winners. For over a quarter century, the Institute has sponsored annual awards for the best Ph.D. dissertations on employment policies and issues.

This year’s first-prize winner is Anna Stansbury, with the dissertation “Essays on Power in Labor Markets” for Harvard University. Honorable mentions go to Natalia Emanuel, with the dissertation “The Fruits of our Labor: Essays on Work and its Impacts” for Harvard University, and Zachary Bleemer, with the dissertation “On the Meritocratic Allocation of Higher Education”  for University of California, Berkeley.

“This year’s Upjohn Institute Dissertation Award winners have made path-breaking contributions to our understanding of some of the most salient employment issues of our time, including the bargaining power of workers, the gender pay gap, remote work, and the implications of affirmative action for future earnings," said Susan N. Houseman, Vice President and Director of Research at the Upjohn Institute. “These dissertations undoubtedly will influence not only future academic research but also our thinking about a range of state and federal social policies.”

Anna Stansbury portrait

Anna Stansbury, now an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, underscores the importance of labor market power and institutions in setting wages and offers suggestions for policymakers looking to reduce income inequality. The essays comprising her dissertation offer three examinations of power in labor markets: what happens to wages when a few employers dominate hiring or when workers have other options; the larger effects of the decline of worker power; and compliance with minimum wage laws.

The first, “Employer Concentration and Outside Options,” written with Gregor Schubert and Bledi Taska, finds that at least 10 percent of U.S. workers have lower wages because of employer concentration. Stansbury finds that high employer concentration is not prevalent enough to affect average wages or inequality to a large degree but it affects millions of Americans, enough to warrant a policy response.

Responses could target the employers with stronger antitrust policies, including greater scrutiny of mergers that concentrate employers in occupations with few outside options. They could also boost workers through wage floors and union support, or by making it easier to find jobs in other markets and occupations, such as by relaxing occupational licensing or expanding affordable housing.

In “The Declining Worker Power Hypothesis,” written with Lawrence H. Summers, Stansbury finds that the decline in worker power is one of the most important structural changes in the U.S. economy since the early 1980s. This decline in power has been so strong that reversing it would require serious institutional changes, not just steps to increase competition.

The final essay, “Incentives to Comply with the Minimum Wage in the U.S. and U.K.,” examines employers’ willingness to break minimum wage laws. The U.K. section was cowritten by Lindsay Judge. Many employers that flout the law to increase profits either escape penalties or treat them as a business expense, Stansbury writes, except for firms that are especially concerned about their reputations. Policymakers would need to step up enforcement for the minimum wage to do its job of ending low pay and to level the playing field for employers who follow the law.

Natalia Emanuel portrait

Natalia Emanuel, now a postdoctoral researcher at Princteon University, looks at how low-wage workers’ constraints and obligations outside of work interact with their employment in her dissertation, “The Fruits of our Labor: Essays on Work and its Impacts.” One essay, “The Payoffs of Higher Pay,” co-written with Emma Harrington, describes the effects on turnover, recruitment and productivity when an employer raises compensation. It also raises questions about the gender pay gap addressed in another of the dissertation’s essays, “Why do Women Earn Less Than Men?” which focuses on disparities at the Boston-area Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. Emanuel and co-author Valentin Bolotnyy shine a light on sources of the earnings gap and strategies that could help close it.

“Behavioral Biases and Legal Compliance,” co-written with Helen Ho, considers the cost of the huge no-show rate for defendants in lower-level courts. They found that informational nudges and personalized assistance both helped defendants appear at their court dates.

In “‘Working’ Remotely? Selection Treatment and the Market for Remote Work,” Emanuel and co-author Emma Harrington explore remote work before the pandemic. Although they find that remote work made workers happier and more productive, it was nevertheless relatively rare.

Zachary Bleemer

Zachary Bleemer, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, examines selective public universities’ reliance on “meritocratic” measures such as standardized test scores in admissions and its effect on disadvantaged students in his dissertation, “On the Meritocratic Allocation of Higher Education.” In the chapter “Affirmative Action, Mismatch, and Economic Mobility after Prop 209,” Bleemer finds that affirmative action improved Black students’ educational attainment and increased Hispanic youths’ wages, but little evidence that it narrowed the Black-white economic mobility gap.

“Top Percent Policies and the Return to Postsecondary Selectivity” looks at how students who scored lower on standardized tests benefit from enrollment at selective universities, finding that universities could broaden access and increase their value to the community by targeting some students with low test scores. “Major Choice Restriction and Student Stratification” shows that when universities impose restrictions such as minimum grade-point average requirements for certain areas of study, underrepresented minority students are much more likely to be excluded.

As these tend to be high-earning fields, such as economics, this worsens income inequality. In “Will Studying Economics Make You Rich,” Bleemer observes outcomes from the University of California Santa Cruz, which imposed a grade-point-average restriction on economics majors. He finds that majoring in economics caused a $22,000 annual increase in early-career wages of students just above the grade-point-average cutoff.

The Upjohn Institute, as an employment research and services organization, is committed to supporting emerging scholars who advance our collective knowledge on employment issues and inform better policymaking. Dissertation Award first-place winners receive a prize of $2,500. Honorable mentions receive $1,000 prizes.

We maintain a list of past winners and honorable mentions going back to 1995 on our website. You can also download the dissertation summaries they prepared.

The 2021 Dissertation Award winner and honorable mentions all maintain personal academic websites with links to their research: