The Bulletin is the student newsletter of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Printed eight times during the academic year, and updated continually online, the Bulletin profiles PhD and master's students and reports on GSAS news and events.

In recent years, concerns about increasing tuition costs, soaring student debt, and changing labor-market demands have caused many to question the efficacy of traditional models of post-secondary education. In summer 2011, as Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn predicted the potential of new technology and teaching models to disrupt higher education, Isabel Harbaugh arrived in Paraguay. Then a college sophomore, Harbaugh was working as an intern, introducing a microfinance student loan program. At the time, she did not anticipate that her experience would lead her to pursue graduate studies at GSAS and transform her into a pioneering voice, championing for the disruption of traditional higher education models.

Now a PhD candidate in public policy, one of GSAS’s interfaculty programs with Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Harbaugh explores the intersection of political economy, economics, and higher education. She holds a special interest in education financing and vocational education that is rooted in her work in Paraguay and her research on the disruption of Latin America’s agriculture system.

Access to Opportunities

A Seattle native, Harbaugh attended Claremont McKenna College where she graduated summa cum laude in 2013 with a BA in economics and international relations. As an undergraduate, she interned at the Vittana Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that helped students in developing countries finance their education with person-to-person microloans. Representing Vittana, in 2011, she worked with Fundación Paraguay, an NGO that designed new models of education to help students finance post-secondary education and, ultimately, earn a better wage. Promoting the new student loan program, Harbaugh observed flaws in the post-graduation transition into the workforce. “My first meeting with students from a vocational school went horribly,” she confesses, “every question I asked was met with blank stares.” A few days later, Harbaugh learned that silence ensued because students had never considered what tools they needed to succeed or the outcome of their education. “Understanding that dynamic made me determined to help everyone access the same opportunities.”

Other experiences in Paraguay informed her senior thesis, which examined the disruption of rural agriculture. “As the economy becomes more globalized and competitive,” Harbaugh described, “the economic power of mega-farms is driving out small farmers, and a huge population isn’t going to be able to make a living in a few decades.” Her thesis proposed innovative solutions, including training programs that would enable farmers to survive the inevitable shift to non-rural work, and earned her the Keck Center Prize for Senior Thesis with Best Original Idea.

After graduating, Harbaugh worked at Mercer, a global consulting firm. “I became fascinated by the corporate perspective of recruitment challenges, such building an effective talent pipeline,” she admits. “I became obsessed with the question: ‘How is research informing public policy?’” Working as a consultant reignited Harbaugh’s passion for academic research. Within a year, she published her first book, Smallholders and the Non-Farm Transition in Latin America. Energized and hoping to build something lasting and influential that could have broad impact, she began her PhD studies in 2015.

Work-Based Learning

In her first year in Cambridge, Harbaugh worked with Robert Schwartz, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), who introduced her to the Pathways to Prosperity network, a collaboration he co-leads. Comprised of the nonprofit “Jobs for the Future,” HGSE, and 12 US states, the network helps students attain a two-year post-secondary degree “with value in the labor market” before entering the workforce. The program’s focus on work-based learning complements Harbaugh’s interest in vocational education as a solution to the serious problems facing post-secondary education—such as declining graduation rates—that have political and economic consequences. “People are struggling to complete a bachelor’s,” Harbaugh concludes, “and we need other opportunities that will provide Americans with the education and skills required for jobs that pay a middle-class wage.”

Through Pathways to Prosperity, Harbaugh worked with the state of Delaware to assess the impact of its two-year degree programs, asking whether students are employed faster or earn more. While myriad studies on higher education in the US exist, she explains, “few of them focus on graduates with two-year degrees who move directly into the labor market, and instead look at those who earn a degree as a means to obtain admittance to a four-year college.” Harbaugh hopes that her study of career-technical education will strengthen Pathways to Prosperity, giving them “rigorous academic proof” to substantiate the benefits of vocational education. “I’d like to help to expand these programs into a national movement,” she shares, “and prove, through research, that a certain type of credential would translate into employment outcomes.”

Expanding Focus

In the midst of her work on career-technical education in the US, Harbaugh was invited to apply her experience in microfinance to schools in the Middle East. This summer, she accompanied Asim Khwaja, Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development at HKS, on a three-week trip to Pakistan, exploring loan models to improve the quality of private education. Throughout the Middle East, public schools have failed to provide adequate education, leading to a proliferation of private schools. While some critics lament that privatization of education promotes inequality, direct microfinance loans may provide a solution, Harbaugh explains, by “structuring loans that encourage schools to make better investments in things—like teacher training, curriculum development, technology—that will improve the quality of learning.”

Touring schools in rural Pakistan with Professor Khwaja, Harbaugh observed that many schools were incorporating surprising innovations, such as complex test scores and performance tracking systems. “This is the kind of innovation we need in the education sector,” Harbaugh notes. “It inspired us to continue our work of bringing loans to schools so they can further invest in these ideas.”

Field visits to Pakistani schools, an unexpected highlight of Harbaugh’s summer, marked the end of eventful first year at Harvard and may have expanded her anticipated research focus. Fluent in Spanish, she had centered earlier international research on Latin America. “I prefer to communicate directly instead of relying on translators, but” she laughs, “I just started taking Hindi-Urdu classes, so who knows what the future holds.” 

The Future of Higher Education

Photos by Molly Akin