University of Tennessee

Celeste Carruthers

Carruthers recently was named the inaugural William F. Fox Distinguished Professor of Labor Economics.

Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research and Economics - Faculty

Celeste Carruthers, associate professor in the Haslam College of Business, has dedicated her career to understanding the future and the past of education. With a joint appointment in the Department of Economics and the Boyd Center for Business in Economic Research, her research centers on education policy with crossovers into public economics, labor economics and economic history.

“It’s a unique faculty situation,” says Carruthers. “I work with state, non-profit and regional entities, exploring different aspects of education and work.”

Carruthers’ interest in her research topics began early. Her parents worked as educators in North Carolina, inspiring her to understand more about education policy. This interest led Carruthers to the University of Tennessee in 2009, where the Department of Economics and Boyd Center were deepening their expertise in education policy.

She began studying the impacts of free community college programs while they were still in their infancy. In 2008, Knox County created Knox Achieves to provide last-dollar scholarships allowing graduates from Knox County high schools the opportunity to attend community college. The Tennessee Comptroller’s office describes last-dollar scholarships as financial aid in which a student draws from other funding sources before being awarded the scholarship.

“At the time, it was unlike any program I’d ever heard of before,” says Carruthers. She was curious about the future impact of the program and began collecting data.

Carruthers’ initial research found that the efforts of Knox Achieves led to significantly higher rates of college enrollment compared to counties without the program. As she continued to study the program’s effects, Knox Achieves expanded to the statewide program tnAchieves. Meanwhile, Carruthers’ findings were published in the Economics of Education Review, attracting national attention.

“We were at the right time and right place to have peer reviewed quantitative research on free community college,” she says.

In 2014, the TN Promise scholarship and mentorship program was created based on Knox Achieves and tnAchieves. TN Promise covers any tuition and fees that exceed a student’s previously granted scholarships and aid, including the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship and Federal aid.

Carruthers’ research helped answer questions about the impact of the program and the cost to the state. As her research moves forward, she is interested in the longer-term impacts of free community college programs, such as college completion and earnings post college as well as military enlistment.

As other states began to adopt their own free community college programs, Carruthers’ knowledge was in demand and her research became the model for future research. Carruthers has been invited to share her findings with federal and state policymakers while they develop programs in their state.

“UT’s support and resources were invaluable in making connections and having those conversations,” she says.

Recently she was named the inaugural William F. Fox Distinguished Professor of Labor Economics. The professorship honors Bill Fox, the director of the Boyd Center.

“Bill has been my mentor and co-author for several years, and a trusted voice to UT and state leaders for much longer than that,” Carruthers says. “He is the sort of big-picture economist I aspire to be.”

In addition to researching the effect of financial aid on college choices, Carruthers also researches career and technical education, and the consequences of segregated schools in the early 20th-century United States. She is the 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 and an affiliated researcher with the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, and she has served as a faculty advisor to several fellows in the Harvard Graduate School of Education Strategic Data Project.

“As a grad student my secret fear was that I would publish research and it would not affect anyone’s lives,” Carruthers says. “That has not been the case at all because of the public service mission of the Boyd center. I feel fortunate to be here doing this kind of work.”