Karen Arnold studies the connections between education and adult life by researching how students move into and through higher education. Her research follows “best case” groups across the transitions from high school to college and from college to career: high school valedictorians, Rhodes Scholars, low income students from innovative high schools, and low-income, high-achieving students. The work centers on the ways in which individual, organizational, and social factors come together to perpetuate inequality in individuals’ educational opportunities, higher education experiences, and subsequent life chances.
Arnold’s 14-year longitudinal study of high school valedictorians has been widely covered in the media. Her pioneering work on transitions of low-income students has introduced the term “summer melt” into the vernacular and sparked widespread scholarly, policy, and program responses. In addition to these contributions to the study of student educational trajectories, Arnold has collaborated with policy scholars, educators, and community-based organizations to study local and national interventions intended to increase college access for students who come from low-income families without a history of higher education.
Arnold has also written articles and books about longitudinal methods, methodological innovations for studying low-income students, and theoretical frameworks for understanding college student development and college access. She has received funding for her work from the Institute for Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Spencer, Hewlett, Mellon, and Lumina foundations.