The Economics Department

Inaugural Winner of the Senior Thesis Prize In Economics


The Department of Economics is very pleased to announce Audrey Straus as the 2010 recipient of the newly established Senior Thesis Prize in Economics.  Ms. Straus is the inaugural recipient of this annual award and was selected for her undergraduate honors thesis, “Education, Wages, and Employment in Pancho Mateo, Dominican Republic”.  The intention of this award is to encourage undergraduate research and honors theses in economics and comes with a monetary stipend of $1,000.  Recipients are selected by a subcommittee of the department’s Undergraduate Studies Committee based on a review of the economics honors theses completed in the award year.  The subcommittee was especially impressed by the initiative Ms. Straus showed in designing her own survey, navigating the Human Subjects Research approval process, and gathering the primary data for her empirical analysis. 

In her paper, Ms. Straus analyzes education, employment, and earnings outcomes of residents of Pancho Mateo over three different periods (before both the construction of the local high school and the decline of the sugar mill, after construction of the high school but before the decline of the mill, and after both events). Her analysis shows that younger individuals are more educated than older individuals; more educated parents tend to have more educated children; and students living in urban areas are more educated than their peers in the campo.  Education has a significant and large positive effect on wages a man earns in Pancho Mateo, as does more experience. Ms. Straus concludes that education is highly financially valuable.  One additional year of schooling leads to a 6.85 percent increase in a person’s predicted wage. On average, a man in Pancho Mateo with a high school education makes 82.2 percent more than a man with no education and 27.4 percent more than a man who stopped after eight years of primary school. A man who has finished primary school is predicted to make 54.8 percent more than a man with no schooling at all.  These estimated gains are large, and suggest that education is an important basis for hope for economic development of this community.  If the growth of the larger economy continues, Ms. Straus expects that more educated individuals in Pancho Mateo will continue to see financial returns to their education, and invest higher incomes back into their families and community.  Her hope is that as a result, persistent unemployment will not remain the status quo, but will fade as the community and local tourism develop. In addition to collecting the materials for a first rate honors thesis, Ms. Straus found value and humor in her day-to-day experiences while conducting her research in Pancho Mateo. She relates some of those experiences below.

Ms. Straus completed her B.A. in Liberal Arts in Fall 2010, graduating with Special Honors in Economics. She has recently accepted a position with the Teach for America 2011 corps and will begin teaching this fall in Los Angeles, bringing new energy and leadership to the challenge of closing the academic achievement gap for students in Los Angeles.

On behalf of the committee and the department, we extend to Ms. Straus our warmest congratulations on this award and on a job well done!       


I traveled this past summer to Montellano, a small city on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, to conduct research for my undergraduate thesis.  Bordering the cane fields on the outskirts of Montellano lies Pancho Mateo, a former housing project of sorts (called a batey) that was formerly owned and “maintained” by the local sugar mill to house its employees.  Through the month I was there I collected useful surveys from approximately 130 individuals in Pancho Mateo, which were sufficient for my analysis.  However, I had actually intended to conduct significantly more useful surveys, but the generosity and enthusiasm of Pancho Mateo for this project at times seemed to subvert my research methods.  

Many participants, at the end of a survey, would tell me to ‘wait right there’ and that they would be back with their brother/neighbor/friend to take the survey as well; and though I could not actually use those surveys, I conducted them anyways because I could tell that there was something valuable in allowing those individuals to tell me their own story as it relates to the closing of the sugar mill and the depressed economy of today.  

Some of my favorite pseudo-participants were the shirtless men in their 60s who play Domino! (“I win” in Spanish; ‘dominoes’ to Americans) day in and day out in the common area between their tiny homes; between surveys, they even taught me how to play.  One of the men is blind and married to a wonderfully generous woman who is deaf; while on their porch surveying, a very inebriated man approached us to warn us about the witch across the street (there was no validity to that accusation).  While he stammered on, I clutched my surveys and smiled over my shoulder to three giggling Dominican kids, all about 13, who also saw the humor in the situation.

Some of my best friends from Pancho Mateo were those that by the end of my trip were referring to me as their hija.  This enormous family is lead by the matriarch Juanita, reaches upwards through her living parents (100 years, and 92 years old!), moves horizontally through her many sisters, and sprawls out through her sons and grandchildren, most of whom live within a mile of one another (except for Juanitas’ niece who lives in New York and with whom they had me call on the phone just to chat).  While I was there I was lucky enough to be a part of the grandfather Emilio’s 100th birthday celebration, which was incredible.  There were more than 300 invitees to the remarkably warm and vibrant fiesta, filled with food and merengue music (to which Emilio danced).  

I am incredibly blessed to have been welcomed so warmly and fully into the community of Pancho Mateo and they receive my deepest gratitude