VoxEU Column Education

A generation of Italian economists

Over the last 40 years, Italy has produced a large number of influential economists. This is somewhat surprising because economics is more likely to require technical training than other social sciences and, until the 1980s, Italy did not have any formal doctoral programme. This column examines how a large scholarship program contributed to the formation of a generation of Italian economists with a focus on gender and socioeconomic status, and on their interaction with social mobility.  

While there is a growing body of literature that studies the impact of merit-based scholarships on undergraduate education (e.g. Angrist et al. 2020, Belley et al. 2011, Bettinger et al. 2019, Deming and Dynarski 2010, and, for a collection of essays on the US, Hoxby 2004), evidence on how funding for graduate studies can affect educational and career trajectories is limited to a study of the effect of a merit-based scholarship awarded to doctoral students by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (Chandler 2018). The study finds no significant effect of the scholarship programme on the probability of completing the doctoral programme, but a small and positive impact on the probability of having a tenure-track faculty position nine years after receiving the scholarship. 

In a recent paper (Nano et al. 2021), we contribute to this literature by studying how financial aid for top achievers helped in shaping a generation of economists. Our analysis relies on a unique database which covers university graduates who, between 1978 and 1994, applied to the largest and most generous merit-based Italian scholarship programme specifically targeted to economics. As only graduates with first class honours could apply for this scholarship, our dataset focuses on the high end of the talent and ability distribution. Therefore, besides studying the effect of the scholarship program, our data also allow us to glimpse at the right tail of the distribution of educational outcomes and analyse the characteristics of top graduates, a group which tends to be under-sampled in most surveys. We also follow shortlisted applicants over time and reconstruct their career trajectory and track their scholarly productivity. 

In studying the characteristics of our sample of high achievers, we focus on gender and socioeconomic status and on their interaction with social mobility. We focus on five main results. 

First, we focus on the interaction of socioeconomic status and social mobility and show that it is easier to become a high achiever (and hence be included in our sample) for students from lower-income households if they come from provinces characterised by higher social mobility (for discussions of social mobility in Italian provinces, see Güell et al. 2018 and Acciari et al. 2019; for a study of social mobility across occupations in Italy, see Mocetti et al. 2018).1 Our data show that applicants from provinces characterised by low social mobility tend to reside in zones with higher real estate property values with respect to applicants who reside in zones with high social mobility, even after controlling for regional differences in housing values (Figure 1). However, we find that socioeconomic status matters also for candidates from high social mobility provinces. Specifically, we find that candidates with lower socioeconomic status are less likely to graduate cum laude, are less likely to study economics or law, and are more likely to have attended a professional secondary school. Along these dimensions, there is no difference between candidates who come from high and low social mobility provinces.

Figure 1 Province-level rank-rank slope and average housing value of applicants’ OMI zone, conditional on average housing value in the region of the applicant (binned regression with 12 groups)


Second, we show that women were less likely to be shortlisted for a scholarship. Figure 2 compares the distribution of the standardised total score of female applicants with that of male applicants. It shows that, for applicants who are close to the shortlisting threshold of 10, the distribution for female applicants always lies to the left of the distribution for male applicants. When we study the reason for this gender gap, we find that it is mostly associated with the fact that women received lower evaluation scores in the most subjective among the criteria used in the initial screening of candidates, such as whether the ‘general profile’ of the candidate is a good fit for the scholarship programme. Instead, we do not find any gender gap in fully objective criteria such as the final university grade or average grades in economic exams These findings are consistent with the presence of implicit bias. 

Figure 2 Distribution of scores by gender 


Third, when we focus on shortlisted candidates, we find no gender differences in the choice of a research career, but we find that scholarship winners are much more likely to choose a research career than other shortlisted applicants. We also find that this scholarship effect is twice as large for women than for men, and that it is particularly large for residents of low-social mobility provinces. 

Fourth, when we study candidates who decided to follow a research career, we find lower citation counts for women who spent a substantial share of their career in Italy, but no citation gender gap for Italian research economists who work outside Italy. We also find that there are no differences in academic productivity between candidates who received a scholarship and candidates who did not. However, we find that the citation gender gap is smaller when we focus on candidates who received a scholarship. This result could be due to the fact that the bar was higher for women than for men. An interpretation that would be in line with the findings on implicit bias described above. 

Fifth, when we examine the career progression of academic economists, we find that it takes longer for women to be promoted to the ranks of associate and particularly of full professor, even after controlling for academic productivity. Our estimates suggest that 50% of Italian male academic economists are promoted to the rank of associate professor eight years after completing their highest degree, while women take about 12 years to reach the 50% threshold (left panel of Figure 3). Gender gaps are even larger when we focus on promotion to full professor. In this case, we find that 50% of men are promoted within 14 years after completing their graduate studies, while women take 25 years to reach the 50% threshold (right panel of Figure 3). This finding is consistent with earlier research which has documented that gender gaps increase with seniority in academia as in many professional occupations in both Europe and the US (for discussions of gender gaps in economics, see Lundberg 2020, Auriol et al. 2019 and Goldin et al. 2019). 

Figure 3 Gender and career progression


Italy does relatively well in terms of economic research. More than 11% of the prestigious ERC grants in economics, finance and management given over 2007-2020 were awarded to researchers based in Italy; the corresponding share for sociology, political sciences, and law is less than 6%.2 This is somewhat surprising because economics is more likely to require technical training than other social sciences and, until the 1980s, Italy did not have any formal doctoral programme. A generation of Italian economists was formally trained abroad, partly thanks to a number of scholarship programmes managed by banks and foundations and specifically targeted to economics. Our analysis of the largest of these scholarship programme shows that the program was successful in promoting economic research in Italy and in identifying highly talented young female economists. 


Acciari, P, A Polo, and G Violante (2019), “'And Yet, it Moves': Intergenerational Mobility in Italy”,, 13 July.  

Angrist, J, D Autor and A Pallais (2020), “Marginal Effects of Merit Aid for Low-Income Students”,, 6 December. 

Auriol, E, G Friebel and S Wilhelm (2019), “Women in European economics”,, 19 November.  

Belley, P, M Frenette and L Lochner (2011), “The role of financial aid policy in shaping income and post-secondary attendance patterns in the US and Canada,”, 24 September.

Bettinger, E, O Gurantz, L Kawano, B Sacerdote, and M Stevens (2019), “The Long-Run Impacts of Financial Aid: Evidence from California's Cal Grant”, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 11(1): 64-94.

Chandler, V (2018), “Short and long-term impacts of an increase in graduate funding”, Economics of Education Review 62: 104-112.

Deming, D and S Dynarski (2010), “College Aid” in P Levine and D Zimmerman (eds), Targeting Investments in Children: Fighting Poverty When Resources are Limited, University of Chicago Press, pp. 283–302.

Goldin, C D, V Guerrieri, and A Voena (2019), “Why are there so few women economists?”, Chicago Booth Review, 29 May.

Güell, M, M Pellizzari, G Pica, and J V Rodríguez Mora (2018), “Correlating social mobility and economic outcomes”,, 26 November.  

Hoxby, C (ed.) (2004), College choices: the economics of where to go, when to go, and how to pay for it, University of Chicago Press.

Lundberg, S (2020), “Women in the economics profession: A new eBook”,, 5 March. 

Mocetti, S, G Roma and E Rubolino (2018), “Intergenerational mobility in professions: Nature, nurture, and regulatory rents,”, 16 August.  

Nano, E, U Panizza, and M Viarengo (2021), “A Generation of Italian Economists”, CEPR Discussion Paper 16135.


1 As a proxy for socioeconomic status, we use the average housing prices in the neighborhood (‘OMI zone’) in which each applicant resides and, to measure social mobility, we rely on the province-level rank-rank slope (RRS) computed by Acciari et al. (2019). As the rank-rank slope measures the correlation between the relative position of parents and children in the income distribution, higher values are associated with lower social mobility.

2 The European Research Council (ERC) offers three main categories of grants: Starting Grants, Advanced Grants and Consolidator Grants. In the SH1 category (Economics, Finance, and Management), researchers based in Italy were awarded 37 out of 327 grants. In the SH2 category (Sociology, Social Anthropology, Political Science, Law, Social Studies of Science and technology), researchers based in Italy were awarded 28 out of 473 grants ( Note that there is a large number of Italian ERC recipients who work in universities outside Italy, but most ERC recipients who work in Italian universities are Italian.

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