Program of Liberal studies alumnus uses big data to fight inequality in education

November 13, 2017

By Jack Rooney

For his entire academic career, Sean Reardon ’86 ’91 MA has sought to use his passions — the humanities and quantitative research — to make a difference in the field of education.

One of the nation’s leading experts on educational inequality, Reardon researches how opportunities and outcomes vary in the United States for students of different racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds.

Reardon’s path to his current position, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University, is long and sprawling. It includes stops on a South Dakota Indian Reservation, a New Jersey Quaker school, and further academic work at Harvard and Penn State — but it all began at Notre Dame.

He arrived in South Bend knowing he wanted to study math, but when Reardon discovered the Program of Liberal Studies in the College of Arts and Letters, he fell in love.

“I learned about PLS my first year, and it really appealed to me — the great books tradition, small class sizes, and thinking about big ideas was very exciting to me at an intellectual level,” he said. “It was the ideal education. I was like a kid in a candy shop.”

Reardon especially liked the program’s small seminars with deeply engaged faculty, which led to intense and fruitful conversations.

At the same time, he pursued an honors math minor and enjoyed using a much different part of his intellect. Both aspects of his education still serve him well, he said.

“My research now is big data, highly quantitative work, but I’ve also done ethnographic work and much more qualitative investigative work,” he said. “And I still enjoy those parts of it. So getting the chance to do both in college was great preparation for having a broad view of social science research as an adult.”