It was an interest in politics that led Nate Hilger into economics.
Growing up, Hilger often heard his parents express strong views on political issues. “They always had something to say about news stories and public debates, and they viewed many issues in terms of good versus evil,” Hilger said. As he got older, he embraced his parents' views. But during high school Hilger confesses that he “learned that I didn’t really know what I was talking about,” and became interested in economics.
“The source of the arguments that seemed most threatening and most potentially convincing against elements of my worldview was probably economics, so I thought I should study that and see what my professors had to say.”
As an economics major at Stanford University, Hilger found the subject disappointing until his junior year. “At first the stories they were telling in lecture seemed frustratingly simple and based on all kinds of crazy assumptions. I didn't realize you got to question all those assumptions later on.” His interest grew as he took courses in econometrics, labor, and economic history.
Although Hilger’s current interests cover a range of areas within economics, he is most drawn to public finance and labor economics, especially work on families and children. “I’ve always been interested in how being born into one type of family, as opposed to another type of family, can affect the rest of your life. I like that both Republicans and Democrats tend to be receptive to the issue. It means that work in the area has a broad potential audience.”
That interest eventually morphed into the thesis he completed as a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard — a study of how the timing of parental income affects children’s college enrollment. Looking at a nationwide dataset of children and their families, Hilger found that giving parents money when their children were approaching college was unlikely to increase the chances of enrollment. According to Hilger, his findings point toward alternative policy tools such as financial aid.
This fall, Hilger joins the Brown faculty as an assistant professor of economics, sharing some of his expertise with an undergraduate class on “Inequality of Opportunity in the United States,” which will look at quantitative evidence about what makes children fare better or worse as adults. In the spring, he’ll head up a graduate class on public finance.
Hilger said that from the start, Brown felt like the right place for him. “I feel very in my comfort zone. It has a reputation for kids who are ambitious and who want to make the most of their abilities, but they’re not slavishly following the rules. Brown has a reputation for encouraging students to think for themselves.”
Hilger also looks forward to joining his new colleagues in the economics department.
“The people here had that combination of doing research that I found impressive and being very brilliant about economics and having a lot to teach me, but also being really fun to talk to. I was excited to go to barbecues with my potential colleagues and that was amazing.”