Tag Archives: Higher education

Does Everyone Want to Attend University?

There was an op-ed in the New York Times the other week that detailed some of the economic inequality in the US. It used academic data to discuss how poorly Americans estimate the level of social mobility. It’s certainly worth reading, but I wanted to highlight one section (and study):

Studies by another author of this article, the University of Illinois psychologist Michael W. Kraus, and his colleague Jacinth J.X. Tan, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found a similar pattern: When asked to estimate how many college students came from families in the bottom 20 percent of income, respondents substantially misjudged, estimating that those from the lowest income bracket attended college at a rate five times greater than the actual one documented by the Current Population Survey.

Now, it’s certainly worth noting how poor Americans are when it comes to estimating social mobility, (they’re certainly just as poor when it comes to estimating wealth inequality), but I’m curious about the desires of those in the bottom quintile. That is, many people espouse the values of higher education (full disclosure: I’m a professor at a higher education institution and I have two master’s degrees!), but what if everyone isn’t meant to go to university? More importantly, what if everyone doesn’t want to go to university?

Higher education is often held up as a mechanism for those in lower income quintiles to move up into a higher quintile (social mobility), but maybe people who come from the bottom quintile don’t want to go to university. I’m not in the bottom quintile nor did I grow up in the bottom quintile, so I have little to no authority to speak about the desires of those who come from the bottom quintile, but I think it’s worth asking what it is that the bottom quintile desires, specifically as it relates to higher education.

In raising this kind of question, it would, of course, be important to raise the issue of culture and how that influences one’s desires. That is, people who come from higher quintiles usually have parents (and friends) who think it natural to make the progression from high school to university. For some, attending post-secondary institutions of learning isn’t a choice — they’re forced to go. For those in the bottom quintile, attending a post-secondary institution of learning isn’t thought about in the same way. For many, it’s not “the thing you do after high school,” but instead, it’s held up as an ideal. It’s held up as a mechanism for transformation from being poor to not being poor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that people in the bottom quintile shouldn’t attend university or shouldn’t want to attend university, but I think that alongside data discussing that estimates university attendance of different levels of income, there should also be data discussing the desires of those different levels of income.

ResearchBlogging.orgKraus, M., & Tan, J. (2015). Americans overestimate social class mobility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 58, 101-111 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.01.005

Global Museum Attendance has Doubled in the Last Two Decades

A little more than a week ago, The Economist published an article about museums. In particular, they drew attention to the fact that the number of museums isn’t in decline. Instead, it’s quite the opposite. Would you have guessed that today, not only are museums not in decline, but that there are more than double the number of museums there were two decades ago?

As a soon-to-be parent, I can’t help but be pleased with this fact. I’m very much looking forward to taking my little one(s) to the museum to learn about the natural world around them. It seems I’m not the only one pleased by this either, with museum attendance way up.

I suppose what’s surprising to me about this is that I figured that with the advances we have had in technology, most people would be more inclined to explore the natural world around them from the convenience of their couch. While I’m glad that this is not the case, I wish someone would do some sort of study to better understand this behaviour. The article ties in the idea of higher education. That is, more and more people are going to university and graduates are more likely to visit museums. This makes sense, but I don’t think that it explains the whole story.

Another point raised in the article is the burgeoning growth in other countries. If you look at the graph embedded above, you’ll see that there’s quite a bit of growth planned for the Southeast Asian countries. [As an aside, in The Economist’s “The World in 2014,” you may be surprised to know that over 40% of the world’s population will be voting in a national election next year.] While this growth may help explain an addition piece of the growth in museums, it still doesn’t quite feel like it’s explained the whole puzzle. Of course, in science, especially the social sciences, we know that it’s not always possible to completely explain behaviour, but I’d like to think that one aspect of this has to do with technology.

That is, I’d like to think that as a species, we’re recognizing that technology is a useful tool for helping us navigate the world around us, but that it’s not the be-all and end-all of human existence. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely appreciate technology. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to type on this external keyboard connected to my laptop, while looking at an external monitor connected to my laptop. Beyond that, you wouldn’t be able to read this article on your smartphone or on your laptop/computer, if it weren’t for technology.

With that being said, technology, in my opinion, hasn’t been able to capture the visceral experience of being there and seeing something. Technology can’t (at least not yet) involve all five of our senses in experiencing. Until it does, I’m happy to continue visiting museums.

Rebranding the Liberal Arts: General Intellectual Capacities

A couple of days ago, someone alerted me to an older article (2011) about the job skills that one learns from the “Liberal Arts.” After I read it, my first inclination was to share it. Having already completed two degrees in the liberal arts, I understand the importance that the liberal arts can have on teaching us how to think about the world around us. Then, I remembered that, for some people, saying “Liberal Arts” is almost like profanity.

I don’t know if it’s because of the word “Liberal” is in there and for those folks who are politically inclined (or hear that word tossed around when talking about politics) think that only “Liberal” people should go to liberal arts schools, but there certainly is a stigma out there — real or imagined. As a result, I thought I’d do some digging to find the phrase’s origin and compare it to some of the other phrases that describe higher education programs.

According to Webster, liberal arts is defined as:

college or university studies (as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills

Well, that seems simple enough: intended to provide chiefly general knowledge to develop general intellectual capacities. Although, the second half of that is a bit distressing: as opposed to professional or vocational skills. Are we meant to assume that general intellectual capacities are in opposition to professional or vocational skills?

My next search took me to Wikipedia:

The liberal arts (Latinartes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (a citizen) to know in order to take an active part in civic life. In Ancient Greece this included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service (slaves and resident aliens were by definition excluded from the duties and responsibilities of citizenship). The aim of these studies was to produce a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person. Grammarrhetoric, and logic were the core liberal arts.

This explanation certainly ties in with the dictionary definition. Having general intellectual capacities would allow one to participate in public debate and to become a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person.

At this point, it’s still not clear to me exactly why we’re parsing liberal arts from vocational or professional skills, so I thought I’d check out the entry for higher education on Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, this entry also separates vocational and professional schools from the liberal arts. It includes 4 different types of higher education:

1. General. This amounts to what we usually think of when we think of university. There’s a great deal of focus on the abstract and the theoretical.

2. Liberal Arts. This is what we’ve already been discussing. Although, there are two other types embedded within: performing arts or plastic/visual arts.

3. Vocational. There’s a focus on practical experience at these types of institutions of higher education, with a bit of theory. These are sometimes referred to as trade schools.

4. Professional. These institutions usually require that the person applying already have a bachelor’s degree. Examples here could be business school, law school, medical school, etc.

It’s still not entirely clear why the liberal arts should be separate from some of these other types of higher education. For instance, when we revisit the definition of developing general intellectual capacities, isn’t that what the majority of higher education does for its students? Would someone really argue that going to a vocational school, a professional school, or going to a “general” school would deprive someone of developing their general intellectual capacities? Certainly not.

Although, I do think that there are things you learn from some of the different disciplines in the “liberal arts” that you can’t get elsewhere. For instance, psychology is such an important subject for understanding the people around you. I really think that “General Psychology” should probably be a required course in every higher education institution, but with a background in psychology, I’m certainly biased — at least a little. That being said, it’s still hard to understand why people wouldn’t want to take this course. Knowing about what “makes people work” could be so advantageous to getting by in the world.

This quick bit of research led me to believe that the “Liberal Arts” may be in need of a rebranding strategy. Of course, I’m not the first one to suggest this. I found an article in the Journal of College Admission from 2009: “The Liberal Arts Rebranded.” In the article, there were references to a number of examples of strategies used for rebranding. For instance, there’s the example of the “Liberal Arts and Sciences,” or the “Practical Liberal Arts and Sciences.” There’s also examples like “Liberal Education” or “Liberal Learning.”

I haven’t seen any data, but I don’t think that any of these would really sway too many people from their previously held bias against the liberal arts, but I don’t know that anything would for some folks.

If I’m brainswarming ideas for a way to rebrand liberal arts, I would think that the name would need to changed completely. Both ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ are words that, to some, are too “soft.” If it’s not math and science-y, then they want no part of it. So, I would try to find a way to incorporate that definition we first looked at: general intellectual capacities. Those three words are quite a mouthful, so it wouldn’t work just like that. There’d have to be something that succinctly conveys that message.


Higher Education is More Like Telecommuting and Less Like Newspapers, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I looked at higher education in comparison to newspapers and to telecommuting. My conclusion was that higher education was more like telecommuting than newspapers (with regard to the introduction of technology). There’s one thing that I didn’t really touch on, but that I think is important: MOOCs.

With the development of massive open online courses (MOOCs), higher education can be broadcast to a wider net. That is, people who might not have otherwise had access to education will now have access to this education. I think that this is a great by-product of MOOCs and online education, in general. This even gives access to folks who might not have been able to take time out of their busy lives to attend classes to now be able to learn things (I’m thinking about working parents).

So, while online education seems like it might be disruptive to higher education, I don’t think it’s going to be that much of a hindrance to the current market of higher education. Of course, there will be some decline, but I don’t think it’ll be as big as folks are predicting. In fact, I think that these MOOCs will actually open up and create new markets for which higher education can then compete in.

We’re seeing some universities breaking into online courses. Heck, my first Master’s was through a hybrid program where most of the learning was done online! George Mason University seems to be taking advantage of MOOCs, too. I recently heard that the Mason Center for Social Entrepreneurship has published a MOOC in social entrepreneurship! Be sure to check it out.

Like I said yesterday: online education is sure to have an effect on higher education, but I don’t think that it will “end higher education as we know it.” I think for that to happen, it’ll take something like the technology I was talking about with CNN and the holographic presence.

Higher Education is More Like Telecommuting and Less Like Newspapers, Part 1

I came across an interesting article in The American Interest magazine a couple of days ago. It was by way of tweet (as it most often is). This tweet came from one of the professors at George Mason University, Prof. Auerswald. He’s done some really cool stuff, so be sure to check ’em out! The tweet which led me to the article:

Intriguing, yes? Well, it was to me, so I proceeded to read the article from the magazine. As for the argument that universities are going the way of the newspaper because of the internet — I don’t necessarily agree with it.

In fact, I think that higher education will go the way of telecommuting more than it will the way of newspapers. What do I mean? Well, telecommuting first became popular last century. It only existed as a possibility from about the 1970s on. By now, you’d expect that lots of people would telecommute, right? Depending on your definition of lots…

Total Number of US teleworkers

This graphic shows that there are only about 3 million total employees who telecommuted in 2011. If I were asked to guess in 1990s how many folks would be telecommuting in the 2010s, I would have guessed waay more than 3 million — as I’m sure most people would.

Higher education — learning — has, for the most part, been an in-person thing. People enroll in university and spend the next 4-5 years living on- (or off-) campus taking classes. In that time, they may also join student organizations, hold internships, and meet a whole bunch of new people. Some of those people become their friends for the rest of their lives.

MOOCs do not have the same qualities of in-person education. Learning online (or on your own) won’t necessarily reap the same benefits of attending university.

I understand the argument and the correlation between newspapers and higher education makes sense, but I just don’t buy it. I don’t believe that higher education will go the same way as Newsweek or other publications. Higher education is more than just the degree. That’s not to say that some consumers won’t choose to go the way of online learning, but I don’t think that it will pull enough folks away from wanting the in-person learning. This is why I think MOOCs and online education is more likely to go the way of telecommuting.

That being said, I do think that MOOCs present a major threat to the higher education market because consumers will perceive it as a shortcut to a degree.

And more than that, I think that advances in telecommuting could shift the way we telecommute — and by extension — higher education. In fact, I remember during the 2008 election, CNN had a “virtual presence” technology wherein one of their guests was somewhere else entirely, but there was a holographic representation of them in the studio (with which Wolf Blitzer was interacting). That was 4 years ago!

I don’t know what happened to that technology (if it’s being developed for commercial use, etc.), but I think that could seriously change the way we interact. I think if that technology were introduced on a larger scale, that would certainly increase the number of telecommuters. Similarly, I think that would have a chance at seriously changing the face of higher education. This technology, assuming it’s “just as good as being there,” would allow folks to be in the comfort of their basements (or virtual presence studio?), while still being at work or in a classroom.

Just as a closing: anything written about the future is inherently flawed. There’s no way to know (for sure) what will happen or won’t happen in the future. So, while these are some predictions or guesses I’m making about the future, they may turn out to be wildly wrong (or surprisingly right).

Note: After writing this, I realized that there were a few more things I wanted to touch on. Look for Part 2 tomorrow!

Are Grades and Tests the Best Way to Measure Learning?

The other week in class, I was speaking with a classmate about grades and learning. We were opining about how sometimes, getting the right answer (on an assignment) shouldn’t necessarily be the goal of the assignment. That is, shouldn’t learning be the goal? Shouldn’t improving one’s storehouse of wisdom be the goal? Shouldn’t understanding be the goal?

Of course, that is the intention with these assignments — that one will learn/understand the material. After having spent (almost) an entire semester on the other side of the classroom, I certainly have [some] empathy for teachers and their assignments. While I don’t have to report to a department chair, I understand that in order to measure students, there needs to be something measurable and I understand that tests/assignments have become the easy way of doing this. Should this be acceptable, though?

I recently came across an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that addresses this issue:

According to this view, the nature of teaching and learning should be measured instead of relying solely on an outcome like a grade or a test. Students should be exposed to courses and assignments that require them to analyze information and apply it to new contexts, reflect on what they know, identify what they still need to learn, and sort through contradictory arguments.

Such opportunities are described in research literature as “deep approaches to learning.” They figure prominently in Thursday’s release of data from the National Survey of Student Engagement. While Nessie, as the survey is known, has long sought data on those practices, this year’s report replicated and extended the previous year’s findings, which showed that participation in deep approaches tends to relate to other forms of engagement, like taking part in first-year learning communities and research projects.

This article has sparked a great deal of debate in the comments section, too. Here’s one comment that I found particularly on-point:

I do not want to be an apologist for the way things are, because it is always possible to improve our practices and in many respects we are responsible for the critical view the public have of us (honestly, it isn’t all the fault of right wing politicians with an anti-intellectual bent); however, higher ed adminstrators and the higher ed press have to stop treating each new study, each new innovation and each new utterance from some rich person suddenly interested in, but also dismissive of, higher ed (I’m looking at you Bill Gates) as the silver bullet  that is going to transform and save higher ed.  My head is not in the sand, I know higher ed (particularly public higher ed) is going through rough times but the panicked responses of the folks in charge is truly dismaying.


I once wrote about the need to shift towards Waldorf- & Montessori-like education. When I wrote this, I was thinking more about elementary and high school. I wonder — what should the model look like for college/university? Should it also be Waldorf- & Montessori-like? I don’t know, but it’s certainly a question worth asking.