Course Syllabus

Econ E-1016: Topics in Labor Economics

Harvard Extension Spring 2016

Instructor: Jane Katz (




Welcome to Econ E-1016!  Almost everyone participates in the labor market during their life either as a worker, a boss, or maybe both. Topics in Labor Economics will explore what economists know about a range of important labor market issues, including:  What determines wages?  When is it worth it to invest in education? Would it improve educational outcomes to pay high school students for studying? Is there discrimination in labor markets and how do we measure it?  Why are incomes becoming more unequal in the U.S.? What legal protections are available to workers in the U.S.?  What are the impacts of unions?

This course will address these questions from the perspective of economic theory and evidence. Students will have the opportunity to learn about the latest research and read key academic papers in the field with the aid of reading guides that will help them understand and digest the material.

There are no formal prerequisites for the course. However, it is recommended that students have familiarity with basic concepts and diagrams in microeconomics (demand, supply and equilibrium; elasticity) as they will be introduced and used throughout. Students should also be comfortable reading and interpreting graphs and tables.

Students without this background can prepare for the course by reviewing basic Algebra and reading the introductory chapter(s) on demand and supply found in any introductory principles of economics textbook or on the web (such as Khan Academy videos).

Students may take the course for graduate credit. Students taking the course for graduate credit should complete all regular assignments and will be graded according to a higher standard than those taking the course for undergraduate credit. They may also be asked to complete one additional assignment.

Students may take the course for noncredit.  Noncredit students may receive all course materials, participate in all classes and activities, and complete all assignments and exams. However, assignments and exams will not be graded.

Note: The course is NOT designed for students who want graduate level credit towards an MA or PhD. in economics or who are looking to prepare themselves for such a program by taking a course that requires advanced theoretical or statistical work.

Course format.  Course meetings will take place online on Wednesday evenings from 7:40 pm to 9:40 pm. To master the material, it is imperative that students read all course material in advance and actively participate in each class. Thus, students are required to (1) complete (upload to CANVAS) a short assignment based on course reading prior to each class and (2) attend all classes and participate in discussion and class activities. Students who miss more than two classes, without truly exceptional circumstances, will see their final course grade drop a full letter grade.

Course readings. The text for the course is Modern Labor Economics: Theory and Public Policy, 12th edition by Ronald G. Ehrenberg and Robert S. Smith, available at the Harvard Coop and online through Amazon etc. There are additional readings (some required and some recommended) for each topic that can be found on CANVAS.  All students are required to read the required readings! 

Tentative topics and schedule.




Setting the framework:

January 27

What is a labor market? How do economists think about labor markets? What are the basic concepts and definitions they use in their analysis?  How do they collect and evaluate evidence?

February 3

What determines wages and earnings I:  Demand side (firm) factors

February 10

What determines wages and earnings II:  Supply side (worker) factors

February 17


February 24

What determines wages and earnings III: The impact of culture, history, law and public policy


Applying the framework:

March 2

What is the role of education in labor markets?

March 9

How much does education affect earnings and employment prospects?

March 16

Spring Break.  NO CLASS


Midterm assignment available Wednesday March 9 and due uploaded to CANVAS no later than 7:30 pm (ET) on Wednesday, March 23.

March 23

What policies might increase educational attainment past high school? Are college students borrowing too much? What policies might improve education attainment?

March 30

Does the “law of one price” hold in labor markets? What are the differences or “gaps” in labor market outcomes by race, gender and ethnicity?

April 6

What accounts for/explains wage and earnings differences or “gaps”?  Have these gaps diminished over time?

April 13

How do we measure unemployment? Who has the greatest chance of becoming unemployed? What are the short and long run impacts of unemployment on workers?

April 20

Is there discrimination in labor markets based on race/ethnicity and gender?  How do economists define and look for evidence of discrimination?  What have they found and what conclusions can we draw?

April 27

Examining wage and income inequality:  What do the data show?  How does this relate to the ability of people to move up over their lifetimes? The size of the middle class? The 1%?  (Why) Should we care?

May 4

Why has inequality increased since the 1970s?  What is the role of the increasing importance of education and skill? How has technology contributed?  Is globalization part of the reason?  Is there a role for labor market policy to reduce inequality?

May 11

 What other legal protections do U.S. workers have? 

Take home final exam available Friday, May 6 due uploaded to CANVAS no later than 3:00pm (ET) Sunday, May 15.


Course policies and requirements.

  • Deadlines have been devised to help you learn the material and build in flexibility for balancing classwork with the rest of your life. However, it is your responsibility to plan, work ahead, and complete all work on time. Deadlines will be enforced except in truly exceptional circumstances and late assignments will not be accepted. Warning: CANVAS will not allow you to upload late papers.
  • The course will use CANVAS to distribute and hand in all course materials. It is your responsibility to make sure you have uploaded the correct file to the correct CANVAS location; you can check by downloading the file back to your computer after you upload it. You should also plan to begin any upload at least one half hour before the deadline. If you are having difficulty, please consult the CANVAS help desk at Harvard. You may also email me a copy of your file to my g-mail address in advance of the deadline. Uploading the wrong file or glitches with CANVAS or email will not be considered a valid reason for late assignments.
  • Class participation. Class attendance online is mandatory and attendance will be taken.  Students who miss two or more classes will see their final course grades drop by one full letter grade.
  • Optional weekly section. There will be an hour set aside each week for an online section meeting where material from class and readings will be discussed and students will have the chance to ask questions. Day and time to be determined.
  • Weekly written assignments. Students are expected to read the assigned articles and complete/upload NINE of the twelve written assignments.  To receive credit, assignments must be uploaded to CANVAS on time -- that is, no later than 7:30 pm (ET) before that class.
  • Midterm assignment. There will be a take-home midterm assignment covering readings, lectures, and discussion available on Wednesday, March 9.  The completed assignment is due uploaded to CANVAS before class 7:30 pm (ET) on Wednesday, March 23.
  • Final exam. There will be a take-home final exam available on Friday, May 6 and due uploaded to CANVAS no later than 3:00PM (ET), Sunday, May 15. 


  • Weekly assignments, attendance, and class participation: 30%
  • Mid term assignment: 30%
  • Final exam: 40%

Academic honesty. Harvard takes the issue of academic honesty very seriously. All students are responsible for understanding Harvard Extension School policies on academic integrity ( and how to use sources responsibly. Not knowing the rules, misunderstanding the rules, running out of time, submitting the wrong draft, or being overwhelmed with multiple demands are not acceptable excuses. There are no excuses for failure to uphold academic integrity. To support your learning about academic citation rules, please visit the Harvard Extension School Tips to Avoid Plagiarism (, where you'll find links to the Harvard Guide to Using Sources and two free online 15-minute tutorials to test your knowledge of academic citation policy. The tutorials are anonymous open-learning tools.

Students with disabilities. The Extension School is committed to providing an accessible academic community. The Accessibility Office offers a variety of accommodations and services to students with documented disabilities. Please visit more information.

Course Summary:

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