Experimental studies in educational and labor market research – advantages and limitations


vicolo dalla Piccola 12

Causality is of growing concern in sociological research. Advances in statistical methods (like matching, instrumental variables, difference-in-difference designs etc.) are one indicator of this development. The increasing application of experimental designs (like audit studies, vignette studies, intervention studies or field experiments) in sociological research, especially in educational and labor market research, is another indicator of this concern. Like in medicine and natural sciences, experimental designs seem to become the “gold standard” of claiming causality also in sociology. In this lecture, I will present designs and findings from three experimental studies of my own work: an audit study on the importance of cognitive and non-cognitive skills for job entry, a vignette study with employers for hiring young migrants (from Spain) after the financial crisis, and a field experiment on the impact of financial information on the realization of college plans of high school students. For each example, I will also discuss the demanding prerequisites for a successful set-up of the studies – including a lot of institutional as well as descriptive knowledge for the experimental research question – and the lessons we have learnt but also their limitations in terms of causal explanation/understanding. The aim of the lecture is thus twofold: first, to provide an overview of my experimental work and their exciting findings, and second, to provoke a discussion with the audience on the advantages and limitations of experimental studies, appropriate interpretations of their findings, and the value of descriptive and institutional studies for them.


  • Heike Solga - Guest Speaker
    WZB and Free University Berlin
    Heike Solga is director of the research unit “Skill Formation and Labor market” at the WZB – Berlin Social Science Center and full professor for Sociology at the Free University Berlin. Her research interests are sociology of education, labor market research, and life course research. She was the chairwoman of the scientific advisory board of the PIAAC study for Germany. She is involved in the German National Education Panel Study (NEPS), responsible for vocational education and training and entry into the labor market. She has published more than 45 peer-reviewed journal articles and several books, among them are: Skill Formation – Interdisciplinary and Cross-National Perspectives” (Cambridge University Press, 2008, edited together with Karl Ulrich Mayer), School-to-Work Transitions across Time and Place: Patterns, Socioeconomic Achievement, and Parenthood (Special Issue “Research in Social Stratification and Mobility”, 2016, edited together with Marlis Buchmann), Persistent Disadvantages or New Opportunities? The Role of Agency and Structural Constraints for Low-Achieving Adolescents’ School-to-Work Transitions (Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2017, together with Anne-Christine Holtmann and Laura Menze), Applying to college: Do information deficits lower the likelihood of college-eligible students from less-privileged families to pursue their college intentions? (Social Science Research, 2017, together with Martin Ehlert, Claudia Finger and Alessandra Rusconi), Secondary education systems and the general skills of less- and intermediate-educated adults: A comparison of 18 countries (Sociology of Education, 2015, together with Jan P. Heisig, Jan Paul), How employers use signals of cognitive and noncognitive skills at labor market entry. Insights from field experiments (European Sociological Review, 2015, together with Paula Protsch), Stigmatization by negative selection’: Explaining less-educated persons’ decreasing employment opportunities (European Sociological Review, 2002). Her current research projects are on school-to-work transitions of less-educated youth; patterns and differences of NEETS in international perspective; variation in employment opportunities of low-skilled workers; information asymmetries and educational decisions; education as social policy.


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