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Kevin Mumford

Kevin MumfordWhy have college completion rates increased? Who benefits from a minimum wage increase? How does the housing market affect the number of children born each year? How do payday loan regulations affect the likelihood that borrowers will repay?

These are the sorts of questions associate professor of economics Kevin Mumford seeks to answer using individual-level data and microeconometric data analysis methods.

Mumford cops to having extremely diverse research interests.

“Writing papers on so many different topics is probably not a good strategy for developing a reputation as the leading expert on a particular topic,” he says. “But the freedom to research whatever I’m currently interested in makes my job so much more enjoyable.” Currently, he’s most interested in education topics including K-12 teacher pay, grade inflation, using income share agreements to pay for college, and the nationwide decline in the time it is taking students to graduate with a 4-year degree.

“In my view, education policy has the greatest potential of any feasible government reforms to improve people’s lives,” he says.

Improving people’s lives is a major component of the mission of PURCE — the Purdue University Research Center in Economics — which Mumford has directed since 2018. The center’s faculty affiliates conduct policy-relevant economic research, and share their data-driven insights into how laws, regulations, and government programs affect the market economy and the well-being of individuals and society.

Mumford is proud that the center, established in 2013, has expanded its reach in recent years, hosting informational sessions at the Indiana Statehouse so lawmakers, executive branch department leaders, and other key decision-makers can hear and ask questions about policy research.

“We have outstanding researchers producing important insights into the consequences of government action. As a center, we will continue getting better at communicating these research findings to government and community leaders as well as to the general public,” Mumford says. “As our influence grows, so will our ability to offer insights that will help government policy move towards better solutions.”

PURCE faculty affiliates study the effects of Social Security rules, bankruptcy laws, SNAP (often called food stamps), tariffs, opioid programs, and many more policies. Many governmental programs, both state and federal, go unstudied either because of the lack of data or because there are not enough researchers trained to estimate policy consequences using observational data, Mumford says.

PURCE aims to do its part in remedying the latter problem. The center has created opportunities for undergraduate students to hone their research skills and also to delve deeper into economic topics through two recent initiatives: The Undergraduate Research Assistantship Program and the Economic Scholars Program.

 Undergrads studying economics can apply for paid hourly positions as research assistants, giving them the chance to help a professor with an empirical research project. And in Econ Scholars, select students from across campus — many not economics majors — meet weekly for a small, workshop-style class to discuss econ theory and history. 

Econ Scholars was taught by the Dr. Samuel R. Allen Dean of the Krannert School of Management — and PURCE faculty affiliate — David Hummels in Fall 2020. Mumford will teach the course in Spring 2021. In his time at Purdue, Mumford has mostly taught econometrics to undergraduate students.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing students realize that regression analysis can be used to better understand the multitude of different choices that people make,” he says. “I want students to not just know how to get the computer to run a regression — I want them to know exactly what calculations the computer is doing and why it is doing them.”

Math and social studies were Mumford’s two favorite subjects in high school, and economics is “a wonderful blend of the two,” he says. He started college as an engineering major and only took the principles of economics course because it fulfilled a university-level core requirement.

“That first economics course taught me to see the world in a different way. I decided to take some additional economics courses and eventually switched majors.”

Mumford earned his BA in Economics from Brigham Young University, and his PhD in Economics from Stanford University in 2007. That same year he joined Krannert’s econ faculty.

Among his many duties is mentoring PhD students; PURCE funds several PhD econ students each year.

“I really enjoy seeing the creative research ideas they come up with,” Mumford says of his PhD candidates. “My approach to advising PhD students is to provide helpful advice and encouragement, but to make it clear that the idea generation is up to them. Handing a PhD student a project to work on for their dissertation may be a more efficient path to graduating students, but it doesn’t produce researchers who are confident in their ability to produce research on their own.”