Median college debt under $17k

While college debt as a whole hits record levels – over $1.3 trillion – the median debt is much more reasonable:

The median amount was nearly $17,000, but nearly 20 percent of those households owed more than $50,000.

I would suggest a disproportionate amount of media attention goes to college students at highly ranked or high status institutions that amass a lot of debt while most college students have more manageable amounts of debt. Of course, any debt may be difficult to pay back but there is a big difference between the median – $15k – versus the 80th percentile – $50k.

If debt was such an issue, why do Americans keep going to the more expensive institutions? Are too many students and families unnecessarily striving for “the best” when a cheaper yet good education would likely do?

59% of bachelor’s degree students finish

A four year college degree should not be taken for granted as even many who begin at a four year college do not finish:

The reality is that America has a college-completion crisis. Among traditionally aged bachelor’s degree students, the U.S. Department of Education reports that only 59 percent graduate within six years, nevermind four. For students in two-year institutions, completion rates are even lower. Put those numbers together and a majority of American students who enter college do not complete their degrees in the time allotted, or indeed ever.

The rest of the article raises some worthwhile questions about who is responsible for this percentage and what could be done to improve it. At the least, it should serve as a reminder to two groups:

  1. Those who expect that because everyone knows the value of a college degree in today’s world, potential college students should move heaven and earth to obtain a degree. It is not necessarily an easy process to complete.
  2. Better off students should remember that the path to a four year college degree is not a given. Making it to graduation day often reflects years of expectations, preparation, and resources that not everyone can access.

Cities, universities, and their interactions

A new book looks at the interaction of universities and major cities:

The question of the university’s responsibility to its city goes back to the early 20th century and was the subject of much discussion at the annual meetings of the Association of Urban Universities, founded in 1914. The association’s early members included not only municipal universities like City College, Hunter, Akron, Cincinnati, Louisville and Toledo, but private universities including Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Brown, Chicago, Harvard and Vanderbilt, among others. In the years after World War II, however, the term “urban university” increasingly came to be understood as an institution serving working-class, immigrant, minority and commuter students.

I believe that all higher education institutions located in cities should take full advantage of their urban location, which means using the vast resources of the city to support teaching, research and community service. Faculty at research universities should study the city, the metropolitan area, local government, business and economic development, public health, K-12 education, and so much more. Some of this research might be commissioned by government agencies, local business associations or other entities involved in advancing the needs of the city. But much of this research should be conducted independently. All urban institutions have a great opportunity to engage undergraduate, graduate and professional students in city internships and experiential learning, which has become quite popular in recent years. In addition to such instruction-based activities, more and more institutions have embraced a commitment to fostering civic responsibility in students through volunteer service. In short, I would argue that all colleges and universities in cities should engage with their municipality, and that such engagement greatly enhances their mission, whether they are exclusively undergraduate institutions or national research universities….

This tension between neighborhood improvement and gentrification has a long history. Both perspectives are appropriate. In 1958, an official of the Ford Foundation described “the plight of the urban university,” which he said has been “left behind to inherit a neighborhood growing steadily less desirable.” Under these circumstances, he argued, these institutions “will be sorely tempted to join the flight from the city,” but he insisted that to do so would “deny the purpose and potential of the urban university.” Retaining middle-class people in cities was widely viewed as an important national goal reflected in federal funding for urban renewal, begun in 1949.

The U.S. Housing Act of 1959 greatly expanded support for university-based urban renewal, providing that for every dollar an educational institution spent for land acquisition, demolition, building rehabilitation or relocation of occupants of demolished buildings adjacent to or in the vicinity of an urban renewal project, the city could receive two to three dollars of federal urban renewal money. By 1964, 120 colleges and university renewal projects had received federal funding. Keeping middle-class people in cities remained a major feature of liberal urban policy through the end of the century. But displacement of low-income residents has also been inconsistent with liberal policy goals. In recent years, many universities have found ways to work closely with neighborhood organizations in improving neighborhood conditions and meeting university expansion needs. I would argue that today, neighborhood-community collaboration is crucial.

There is much to explore here, particularly with the rise in recent decades of cities looking to use colleges and universities as tools for economic development.

Just thinking off the top of my head, it is interesting to connect the top schools in the United States and their location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the case that highly regarded schools are in major cities or just outside them yet there does seem to be numerous connections. Additionally, campuses and cities can have a feedback loop where they influence each other’s status and presentation to the rest of the world.

Guidelines for using big data to improve colleges

A group of researchers and other interested parties recently made suggestions about how big data from higher ed can be used for good within higher ed:

To Stevens and others, this massive data is full of promise –­­ but also peril. The researchers talk excitedly about big data helping higher education discover its Holy Grail: learning that is so deeply personalized that it both keeps struggling students from dropping out and pushes star performers to excel…

The guidelines center on four core ideas. The first calls on all players in higher education, including students and vendors, to recognize that data collection is a joint venture with clearly defined goals and limits. The second states that students be told how their data are collected and analyzed, and be allowed to appeal what they see as misinformation. The third emphasizes that schools have an obligation to use data-driven insights to improve their teaching. And the fourth establishes that education is about opening up opportunities for students, not closing them.

While numbers one and two deal with handling the data, numbers three and four discuss the purposes: will the data actually help students in the long run? Such data could serve a lot of interested parties: faculty, administrators, alumni, donors, governments, accreditation groups, and others. I suspect faculty would be worried that administrators would try to squeeze more efficiencies out of the college, donors might want to see what exactly is going on at college, the government could set new regulatory guidelines, etc.

Yet, big data doesn’t necessarily provide quick answers to these purposes even as it might provide insights into broader patterns. Take improving teaching: there is a lot of disagreement over this topic. Or, opening opportunities for students: which ones? Who chooses which options students should have?

One takeaway: big data offers much potential to see new patterns and give decision makers better tools. However, it does not guarantee better or worse outcomes; it can be used well or misused like any sense of data. I like the idea of getting out ahead of the data to set some common guidelines but I imagine it will take some time to work out best practices.

Determining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies” for sociology

A new book suggests academic disciplines – like sociology – would benefit from defining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies.” Here are some of the outcomes for sociology:

To come up with learning outcomes in the selected six disciplines, which collectively account for more than 35 percent of undergraduate student majors in the U.S., the Measuring College Learning project began by contacting disciplinary ssociations in each field. Those groups helped select 10 to 15 faculty members to lead the work — a total of 70 professors participated…

In sociology, for example, one of the five essential concepts is the “sociological eye,” which means students “will recognize key theoretical frameworks and assumptions upon which the discipline is founded and differentiated from other social sciences.” That underpinning, the book said, includes founding theoretical traditions (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Mead), a critique of rationality to explain human behavior and how social forces affect individuals.

Socialization is another essential concept, which is defined as students understanding the relationship between self and society, and how the self is socially constructed and maintained at multiple levels.

On the competency side, the panel said undergraduates in sociology should be able to apply scientific principles to understand the social world, evaluate the quality of social scientific data and use sociological knowledge to inform policy debates and promote understanding, among other essential competencies (there are six total).

I imagine this would generate a lot of discussion among sociologists about the merits of these kinds of outcomes, what is essential to the discipline (particularly at the undergraduate level), and how these might be accurately assessed.

On this general topic, is sociology uniquely positioned because of its emphases and skills (ability to see the big picture, focus on social structures, variety of methods, etc.) to contribute to assessment conversations?

Can sociology classes keep up with the latest happenings in society?

A recent analysis of the top assigned sociology texts in the Open Syllabus Project has a number of interesting findings including a large number of texts from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s:

Sociology is a dynamic discipline, so the inclusion of many texts published in the past 30 years is not surprising. Nor is the continued importance of the foundational sociology texts published between 1850 and 1950. But perhaps we can see another kind of generational dynamic at work here. Most of the OSP collection comes from courses taught between 2006 and 2014. Perhaps the emphasis on works published from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s reflects a process of canonization that takes roughly 10 or 15 years, as faculty in their 40s become senior faculty in their 50s or 60s, balanced by the need to assign material that is still feels relevant to the analysis of contemporary problems, which may have a roughly similar temporal horizon. Again, the OSP offers only some data points, at present, toward an understanding of contemporary sociological knowledge. But they are suggestive ones and worth further exploration as the data set matures.

This argument makes sense: sociology faculty will tend to assign texts they are familiar with and that is likely material they know from graduate school as well work that informs their own.

But, it does raise some interesting larger questions:

  1. Certainly, it takes some time to put together good research that involves theory, data collection and analysis, and thinking about the implications. Yet, this lag in texts and current events means that individual faculty have to find ways to bridge the gap. I’m not sure the answer is to significantly speed up the publication process with journal articles and books – as it can often take years – as this limits the times needed to develop good analysis. It does suggest that other outlets – like blogs or op-eds or more popular books – might offer a solution and this may mean such work should count for something in the discipline.
  2. How much does the knowledge of faculty “freeze” in what they learned in their training or from their early career? I remember hearing that sociologists may know the most when they were doing their comprehensive exams. How well can people keep up with all the literature that arises, particularly if they have heavy teaching loads?
  3. This suggests that a lot of sociological classwork involves historical analysis as the texts used as typically from enough years ago that students don’t know all of the details of the context. How good are sociologists at doing historical analysis with undergraduates?

Haidt argues Anthro and Soc are the worst academic monocultures

Jonathan Haidt discusses the monoculture of academia and names two disciplines that may be the worst:

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

Interesting view from the outside as Haidt says later in the interview, “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists.” From the inside, a lot of sociology faculty and students seem to be at least partly motivated by wanting to address particular social issues or problems. Whether that clouds their research judgment more than social psychologists – who just want to understand the world, as any scientist would claim – would be interesting to explore.

If you haven’t read it, Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is fascinating. He argues that opposing sides – say in politics or academic disciplines – have different narratives about how the world works and this causes them to simply talk past each other. In a 2012 piece, Haidt describes the moral narratives of the American political left and right:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Holding so tightly to different understandings of the world means that compromising is very difficult.