CSMGEP Profiles: Cecilia Elena Rouse, Princeton University
Cecilia Elena Rouse, Katzman-Ernst Professor in the Economics of Education, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Director Education Research Section, Firestone Library, Princeton University
When she arrived at Harvard University as an undergraduate, Cecilia Rouse didn’t know she wanted to study economics, but a freshman economics course enticed her. It was the early 1980s, a time of high unemployment, and Rouse was compelled by the economic models of unemployment. In economics she found a set of principles for thinking about important economic and social issues. “I could have done this in other disciplines… but I just liked the tools that economics employs.”
A mathematical thinker, Rouse was concerned about social issues. “I have the good fortune of having a father who was one of the first African American PhDs in physics, and a mother who was a school psychologist. My father really believed in math and was a brilliant scientist and my mom had the social skills; she can observe a group and fully understand both the group dynamics and the individuals involved.” Economics became the gateway for Rouse to think about society’s problems from a more mathematical angle.
After completing her PhD at Harvard, she became an assistant professor at Princeton, where she has remained for 20 years, other than one year at the Russell Sage Foundation and three years in government in Washington, DC. As a labor economist with a subspecialty in the economics of education, Rouse studies the impact of education and training on labor market outcomes.
She has twice had the opportunity to translate her expertise in economics into policy, serving President Clinton at the National Economic Council (NEC) in 1998 and President Obama in 2009-2011 as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). At the NEC she helped to coordinate economic policy for the Administration. It was a very different experience for her as she had to learn to find policy solutions that addressed issues in departments with divergent concerns, such as those of the Departments of Labor and Commerce. Also during her time at the NEC, Rouse experienced one of her most fulfilling moments when, after having worked on an immigration bill, she had the opportunity to personally negotiate the final bill on Capitol Hill.
At the CEA she advised the President on policies regarding unemployment during the deepest recession since the Great Depression. She studied the nature of unemployment and helped to design policies to increase economic activity and help unemployed workers. She also put her research to direct use when working on President Obama’s education policies such as those in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), which streamlined student loan processes and invested the savings back into education financial aid programs. SAFRA also made investments in Historically Black Colleges, other minority-serving institutions, and community colleges. Rouse sums up, “It was one of the largest investments the federal government has made in these institutions which are so important to so many individuals.”
Rouse has also always been concerned about the lack of diversity in academia. There has no doubt been progress as back in the 1950s when her father completed his PhD there were few academic opportunities; in contrast all three of his children have or had academic jobs (both Rouse and her sister are professors at Princeton and her brother was on the faculty at UC Davis). However, there is a long way to go. And so Rouse works to increase the representation of minority groups in the economics profession, most notably through her activities on the AEA’s Committee on the Status of Minorities in the Economics Profession (CSMGEP), which she chaired from 2006 to 2009 and is currently chairing as well.
To Rouse, one of the benefits of becoming an economist is the versatility it provides in terms of issues to be studied as well as careers. “I equally love teaching and doing research as I do constructing and analyzing policy outside of ‘the academy.’” She wants young people to know that economists are not only concerned with business and the stock market but also people, education, health, crime, poverty, and other such issues. Moreover, they can pursue careers in academics, the private sector, or the public sector, and can focus on research, analysis, or policy.
What advice does Rouse offer to those just embarking on economic studies? First, take plenty of math, “more math than you think you need.” Second, step back, take a deep breath, and not let panic take over. And third, as she learned and now instructs others, remember that “almost every problem can be solved if one starts from first principles.”
In her career and life, she keeps this precept in mind. Whether in the academic setting of Princeton or the policy-making offices of Washington, DC, it is essential to take on the big challenges. She believes that, while many times the solution to a problem may not be immediately apparent, over time a solution will arise. Rouse believes this is a lesson for life. “Embrace the challenges, don’t be afraid of them, and go forth because you really can do it.”
A salon and parlor game of the 19th century, made most famous by Marcel Proust’s answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....
What is your idea of a perfect day?
I sleep in and read a bit before getting up and having a leisurely breakfast over the newspaper. It’s a beautiful day (of course) and so I then either work out or take a nice long walk or bike ride with family and friends. I end the day with a delicious meal with good conversation.
What’s on your nightstand?
A radio, lamp, eye drops (it’s allergy season), and my new Nook (I just finished “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain).
How do you treat yourself? What’s your favorite indulgence?
I love to go to the movies.
What trait do you most deplore in others?
Unfairness and dishonesty.
Whom do you most admire?
I most admire my Mom and Dad as they are both pioneers. My Dad was one of the first African Americans to receive a PhD in physics and my Mom instilled in me and my siblings a great sense of integrity and independence.
What is your greatest regret?
I don’t really have regrets – I try to make the best decision I can in any situation and live with it. That said, I spent a year in Dakar, Senegal after college and at times I think I should have stayed a 2nd year.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Balancing work and family… or at least attempting to do so!
What could the world do without?
The world could do without greed and selfishness.
What will you never forget?
I never forget that all that I have in my life is due to those who blazed the trail before me.
If you weren't in economics, what would you want to do?
I’d probably be in law also trying to address issues in public policy.
What do you most value in your friends?
A sense of humor.
What’s your most annoying/bad habit?
I tend to try to finish people’s sentences. It drives most people – especially my husband – crazy.
What would be your dream job?
I’ve got it!
What is your most treasured possession?
My family photos.