Get to know: Kevin Rask

Kevin Rask was probably destined to be an economist: His father, two sisters, and his wife, CC President Jill Tiefenthaler, all are economists. If that’s not enough, he was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a country of vast economic opportunity, where his father was working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) while completing his dissertation in economics.

The Rask family later moved to Columbus, Ohio, where his father taught agricultural economics at Ohio State University and his mother was a special education teacher in the Columbus public schools.

Rask received a B.A. in economics from Haverford College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from Duke University. After considering and then discarding two or three dissertation topics, he wrote his dissertation on “The Social Costs of Production and the Structure of Technology in the Brazilian Ethanol Industry: A Cost-Benefit Analysis and an Infant Industry Evaluation, 1978-1987.” Rask has taught at Colgate University and Wake Forest University.

The first decade of Rask’s research centered on renewal fuels; primarily ethanol development, production, markets, and policy in the United States and Brazil. He also looked at the impact of ethanol on the U.S. highway trust funds and emission characteristics of ethanol. Over time, with the system so entrenched with political and agricultural interests, Rask moved on to an area that had always been a student-research focus of his: higher education.

“Since the late 90s, my primary area has been higher ed,” he said. “I’ve always found it the best way to teach econometrics and statistics.” He teaches econometrics, defined as “the application of mathematics and statistical methods to economic data,” by using higher ed models as examples. “College students understand the econometric concepts and methodology more clearly when you use examples such as college choice and major choice,” he said. “Difficult analytical concepts are easier to grasp when the context is something the student has experienced first-hand.” In fact, a major focus of his research is the modeling of choice. It’s an area that fascinates him: why people do what they do in different environments or facing different constraints.

Some of Rask’s more recent research in the field of higher education has focused on issues such as the role of grade sensitivity in explaining the gender imbalance in undergraduate economics, the SAT as a predictor of success at a liberal arts college, and the influence of various components of U.S. News & World Report’s ranking categories on a school’s final score.  The last issue is gaining increased attention, as many schools, Colorado College included, no longer tout U.S. News & World Report rankings in publications or on their websites. Rask said the formula and weight given to various components of the USNWR rankings are not independent, but rather, are linked.  As an example, he cites the component identifying how many students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Although that component has a predetermined weight, if a school changes its top 10 percent profile it will also change other components, such as average SAT scores and projected graduation rates.  Therefore, Rask says, the effective influence of some components is greater than their published weights.

Rask also is interested in the long-term returns to a selective liberal arts education, not only as a way of justifying the sticker shock of the cost, but also its lasting benefits. “Most economists tend to focus on earnings,” he said. “But research also shows that college graduates tend to vote at a higher rate, divorce at a lower rate, are healthier, and are more civically engaged. Graduates also are more flexible in their careers and have a greater ability to be productive in the workforce.  New research is beginning to find differences between types of institutions and certain outcomes, and the contributions of liberal arts colleges are a primary interest of mine,” he said.

Rask taught Econometrics in Block 2 and will co-teach, with Tiefenthaler, Economics of Higher Education in Block 5. As part of that course the class will look at various educational models and institutions, including planned visits to Pikes Peak Community College, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, Regis University, and the Air Force Academy.

In addition to teaching, Rask oversees five senior thesis projects and has a part-time appointment conducting institutional research at CC. That position is still evolving, but in the past Rask developed models of alumni giving and participation for Colgate University, and models of admission yields and financial aid for Colgate, Wake Forest University, many undergraduate institutions, and several law schools.

Rask is impressed by the CC students’ level of engagement in their classes, noting that, “As a group, they are far more engaged than other students I have taught.” He also finds there are fewer barriers between students and professors at Colorado College than at other institutions and wonders whether that is attributable to the type of students attracted to CC, the type of faculty the college attracts, or if it’s part of the culture of the Block Plan.

As much as he enjoys research, Rask really enjoys teaching. “My research isn’t going to change the world in a huge way,” he said. “But with teaching, you can have a lasting influence.” His goal? “To turn out majors who are capable of good, independent reasoning. They should have the intellectual confidence and skills to come up with their own answers to inquiries and projects.”

 Part of his dedication to teaching is evident in his left knee, which remains swollen despite surgery in the middle of Block 2. Rask, an avid basketball fan, tore his ACL playing a pick-up basketball game in late September. Feeling better after the surgery, he spent too much time on his feet in class and his knee subsequently swelled up.  An infection followed, and after a second surgery he is back on his feet without crutches (or an ACL) and looking forward to getting the knee done again after teaching Block 5. Despite his love for sports, Rask says it will be a while before he plays as hard as he used to.

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