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Our Team

Celeste Carruthers

Celeste Carruthers is an associate professor in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee with a joint appointment in the Department of Economics and the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research.

Her research centers on education policy with crossovers into public economics, labor economics, and economic history. Recent and ongoing projects examine the effect of financial aid on college choices, career and technical education, and the consequences of segregated schools in the early 20th-century United States. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in public expenditure analysis, causal inference, and econometrics.

Carruthers is editor-in-chief of Economics of Education Review, a former member of the Association for Education Finance and Policy Board of Directors, a member of the CTE Research Network at the American Institutes for Research, a member of the CTE Research Exchange (CTEx), an affiliated researcher with the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), and she has served as a faculty adviser to several fellows in the Harvard Graduate School of Education Strategic Data Project.

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Cara DeLoach

Cara DeLoach is a Ph.D. student in the Educational Leadership, Policy, and Organizations program at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

DeLoach’s research focuses on postsecondary access and community college student retention and completion. Using mixed-methods approaches, DeLoach’s ongoing research projects focus on rural postsecondary access and enrollment, wraparound services for college students, and vocational programming at community colleges.

Before attending Vanderbilt, she taught English and Humanities at Bladen Community College in Dublin, North Carolina. She holds a B.A. in English and Political Science from Howard Payne University and an M.A. in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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Christine Dickason

Christine Dickason is a PhD Student in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Dickason’s research focuses on college access, particularly for underserved communities, and the role of school counselors in the college pipeline. Recent and ongoing projects examine the effect of state mandates on student-to-counselor ratios, Black students’ college choice during COVID, and supplemental Promise programs in Tennessee.

Prior to her doctoral work, Dickason worked in Washington, D.C. in a variety of organizations, including the White House Office of the First Lady, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Center for American Progress, and the Global Development Incubator. Dickason holds a Bachelor’s in Public Policy Leadership from the University of Mississippi and a Master’s in Public Policy from The George Washington University.

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Walter G. Ecton

Walter G. Ecton is a PhD Student in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Ecton’s research focuses on the intersections between high school, higher education, and the workforce, and the pathways students take as they navigate those sectors. His work primarily uses large administrative datasets to explore educational and labor market returns to Career and Technical Education (CTE), both in the K-12 and higher education spaces.

Prior to his doctoral work, Ecton taught high school social studies at Booker T. Washington High School in the Atlanta Public School system and served as associate director of new business development at the Education Advisory Board (EAB), a DC-based higher education technology and consulting firm. Ecton holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science and Theater Studies from Emory University and a Master’s in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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William Fox

William Fox (PI), is the Chancellor’s Professor and Ergen Professor of Business at the University of Tennessee and Director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research.

Fox has held appointments as a visiting scholar for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii, and as Distinguished Fulbright Chair for American Studies at the University of Frankfurt, Germany. In addition, Fox has served as a consultant on finance, taxation, and economic development in a number of states and developing countries.

Fox is a member of the American Economics Association and a past president of the National Tax Association. He holds a PhD in economics from the Ohio State University.

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Steven Gentile

Steven Gentile serves as the Chief Policy Officer and oversees the Bureau of Policy, Planning and Research. The Bureau, comprising the Research and Strategy Division and the Fiscal Policy Division, is charged with researching and developing policies and practices that make earning a higher education credential more attainable. The Bureau also is responsible for developing the state’s higher education appropriation request, completing all statutory reports, and supporting other divisions with data analyses and program evaluations.

Prior to joining THEC, Steven served as Assistant Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Davidson College in North Carolina. He moved to Nashville in 2012 and shortly after started as a graduate assistant in the Policy, Planning and Research division before starting a full-time position as Assistant Director of Fiscal Policy for THEC in 2013.

A native of Cullowhee, North Carolina, Steven earned his Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Davidson College, his master’s of Higher Education Administration from Vanderbilt University, and his Doctorate of Education from Vanderbilt University.

Carolyn J. Heinrich

Carolyn J. Heinrich is chair of the Leadership, Policy and Organizations Department, a professor of Public Policy and Education in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at the Peabody College, and a professor of economics in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Heinrich’s research focuses on education, workforce development, social welfare policy, program evaluation, public management, and performance management. She works directly with federal, state and local governments in her research to improve policy design and program effectiveness, and also collaborates with nongovernmental organizations (such as the World Bank, UNICEF and others) to improve the impacts of economic and social investments in middle-income and developing countries.

She received the David N. Kershaw Award for distinguished contributions to the field of public policy analysis and management in 2004 and was elected to the National Academy of Public Administration in 2011.

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Emily House

Emily House serves as the Executive Director for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation.

Prior to assuming this role, House led the THEC/TSAC Research and Planning team as the chief research officer. In this capacity, she developed and executed the State of Tennessee’s higher education research agenda and worked with Executive and Legislative leaders to design, implement, and evaluate initiatives including Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect.

Previously, House served as a Teach for America corps member, and currently teaches statistics and research design courses to doctoral students at East Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt University.

A native of Rochester, New York, House earned her Bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, her Master’s of Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Michigan. She is a graduate of the Tennessee Government Executive Institute and is the recipient of the inaugural THEC Presidential Fellowship.

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Amanda Klafehn

Amanda Klafehn is the Director of Research and Strategy with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation.

At THEC/TSAC, Klafehn oversees the research and strategy division, which provides data analysis for internal and external parties, fulfills statutory reporting requirements, and supports the State of Tennessee’s policy initiatives through data analysis and research.

Prior to THEC/TSAC, Klafehn worked at the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury producing policy briefs for Tennessee’s General Assembly. She holds a Master’s in Public Policy from Vanderbilt University and a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Studies from the University of Miami (FL).

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Hidahis Mesa

Hidahis Mesa is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Mesa’s research focuses on community college student success, college access for underrepresented students, and pipelines into regional comprehensive universities. Mesa’s current projects utilize a variety of methodological approaches to examine how transfer students navigate the transfer process, how the geographic distribution of postsecondary institutions impacts college choice, and how community colleges develop partnerships with outside stakeholders.

Prior to her doctoral work, Hidahis worked at San Diego State University and Alachua County Public Schools as an institutional research analyst. Hidahis received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Florida and a master’s degree in Urban Education Policy from Brown University.

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Adela Soliz

Adela Soliz is an assistant professor of higher education and public policy in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Soliz’s research focuses on policies affecting student success at public community colleges. Her research uses large state administrative or national datasets and econometric methods to estimate causal effects of policies and program participation on community college students’ outcomes. More specifically, she is interested in issues related to college affordability, the development of vocational education at community colleges, and transfer and articulation between two and four-year institutions.

Her research has been published journals such as Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis and Education Finance and Policy. She receives funding for her research from the Lumina Foundation and the American Educational Research Association.

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Russell VanZomeren

Russell VanZomeren serves as a Policy and Research Analyst for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation. In this role, he works to fulfill the agency’s reporting duties, conducts program evaluations, and creates policy-relevant research.

Prior to this role, VanZomeren worked as a research fellow at Complete Tennessee, a non-profit focused on higher education access and success in Tennessee. VanZomeren also has served as a college counselor in King, North Carolina, through the College Advising Corps.

A native of Shelby, North Carolina, VanZomeren earned his Bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his Master’s of Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.

Jilleah Welch

Jilleah Welch is a research associate at the University of Tennessee Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy.

She joined the Baker Center in November 2015. Welch’s research interests are in the areas of public finance, the economics of education, and environmental economics. Her work on financial aid has been published in Economics of Education Review and Journal of Public Economics.

Welch has a PhD in economics and MBA from the University of Tennessee, as well as a dual bachelor’s degree in mathematics and industrial engineering from North Carolina State University. Prior to arriving at UT, Welch was a financial analyst and engineer at Boeing.

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Affiliates and Alumni

Ela Joshi

Ela Joshi is an education researcher at Center for Education Research & Innovation at SRI International.

She is interested in conducting research that informs policies and practice for historically underserved populations and is interested in the way people interact within and with educational organizations. Her research uses rigorous quantitative and qualitative methodology to generate important insight and understanding into the challenges faced by students and school leaders at the district and state levels.

Joshi’s dissertation, “Historically Marginalized Students’ Access to Educational Resources”, consists of three studies that examine how English Learner (EL), first-generation college, and racial/ethnic minority students experience and access educational resources and how access may relate to their educational attainment.

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Jenna W. Kramer

Jenna W. Kramer is an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Her work uses quasi-experimental, experimental, and qualitative designs to examine human capital development decisions and transitions, particularly for students at community and technical colleges.

Her research has examined postsecondary readiness, college access and success, informational interventions, financial aid access and take-up, and developmental education. Kramer’s dissertation studying college choice and the transition experience of individuals in Tennessee’s tuition-free community and technical college context was funded by a National Academy of Education and Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship.

She has a Ph.D. in education leadership & policy from Vanderbilt University and a B.A. from Colgate University.

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