Center Spotlight | Dominique Baker

Dominique Baker wants to make it possible for all students to have equitable opportunities. She is an assistant professor of education policy at SMU’s Simmons School and an associate at the SMU Tower Center. We sat down with her to talk about her journey to SMU and how her research could lead to more thoughtful education policies.

What brought you to work at SMU?

Center Spotlight Dominique BakerI completed and defended my dissertation in 2016 and during that final year I was really hoping to find a university that blended a focus on research and a really strong care for teaching and engaging with students. Because of that, I was really excited when I saw SMU had a position. I think SMU has a really great blend. You can talk to students about the attention and time that we give them and the small class sizes, all of those pieces.

At the same time I feel very confident that the institution is concerned about my research and wants to help me do good research that can impact the community. One of the primary pieces of that, is that I don’t just study education, I study education policy. I’ve always been really interested in seeing how public policy intersects with education and how we find ways to create more equitable outcomes for all students.

What has made you so passionate about education policy?

It all really starts with what I’ve seen as a child, and this was echoed in my former position as assistant dean of admissions, which is that there are real structural barriers to certain people achieving. It has always troubled me that certain people, by the luck of the draw, are able to reach certain heights, when it comes to going to college and life after, that other people aren’t. I see public policy as a way to actually create equity, and so that’s a thing that’s always stuck with me.

What structural barriers have you come across in your experiences and research?

We’ve got plenty. We’ve seen a fair amount of research on poverty, and what that can do. So having less material resources, and how that can affect someone’s ability to achieve. For example, a structural issue is who we give access to material resources. But the way that can play out is if a student doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from, are they really going to focus a lot on their schoolwork that day? And then your GPA from high school can dictate what types of institutions you go to for college, if you even think that college is an option for you. That’s just one way of how structure can affect an individual. I think that can play out on many different lines, whether that’s race, gender, all sorts of things.

Is there a particular barrier you’re trying to tackle with your research?

The research that I do has a primary focus on students from lower income backgrounds who are racial-ethnic minorities, which means I focus a lot on student financial aid. Low income students are often relying on financial aid. Black students borrow at the highest rate and at the highest amount, so there’s a lot of cross section between who needs financial aid, who needs loans, and race. Financial aid winds up being a focal point for a lot of those different areas.

I also broadly try to study policies that can shape campus environments, and what can create an inclusive environment. That can be in a classroom, that can be students protesting and signaling that they don’t think the environment is inclusive — all those sorts of things.

Your last paper looked at student protests at universities. Tell us about what you found.

My coauthor and I were very interested in trying to understand which universities have protests. Is there anything about them that we could see a pattern? It started with looking at racial-ethnic minorities and what universities do to create an inclusive environment for them. There was no relationship between the share of racial-ethnic minorities in the undergraduate population and whether or not the students had a protest. Which gives us more evidence, which others have found as well, that just getting a certain number of students does not automatically equal an inclusive environment where everyone feels that they can thrive.

What are you working on now?

I am studying a couple of things related to student loans and financial aid. I am currently doing research in the state of Texas because there’s a new state policy called 60x30TX, and one of the pillars for that is a 60 percent debt-to-income ratio for students in public institutions. So I’ve been studying that and reporting to the state some of my findings.

I’ve also been studying a few things around affirmative action and which states choose to adopt a ban on affirmative action. I’m looking at what are the types of environments within the state, population breakdowns, that sort of thing, that are associated with a state adopting a ban.

What does a state have to do to adopt a ban on affirmative action?

It depends on the state. Some states will do ballot initiatives. Each state has different rules on how many signatures are needed to get a ballot initiative on the ballot, and some states don’t even allow them. Some states have gone the legal route, and court cases have banned affirmative action. One state also actually had the governor create an executive order. So there are a number of avenues to it.

What impact are you hoping your research will have?

Long term my hope would be to create evidence that policymakers or policy intermediaries could use to make evidence-based decisions to create an equitable education system. I don’t think there’s a single paper that’s going to make that happen, so it means trying to build a body of evidence. The body that I create in tandem with the work that other people do, could hopefully create an environment where we have a better idea about how we structure policies, and the types of policies that we want to create, if what we care about is creating an equitable education system and an equitable society.

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