Sunday, February 01, 2009

Identity crisis

One of my colleagues swung by my office Friday afternoon in order to let me in on the latest tidbit from the university's Branding Committee.

It seems that according to a recent survey of North Carolina high school juniors and seniors who achieved the highest scores on various metrics (SAT, ACT, GPA, et cetera), our school, the state's public liberal arts school, scored dead last out of the sixteen-school state system when it came to student perception of the amount of individual attention faculty provide to their students.

"What in the hell?" was my reaction.

My colleague nodded his vigorous assent.

"We should be first!"

More excited nodding. "It is frightening that students believe they're more likely to get individualized attention from their professors at Chapel Hill than they'll get here," said my colleague.

"Do the students know what 'liberal arts' means?"

The nodding turned to a solemn side-to-side shake of his head. "No," he said. "That's the thing. High school students do not understand what a liberal arts college is."

"Why is that?" I mused out loud. "Is it because they associate the phrase 'liberal arts' [however erroneously!] with 'unemployability' and fear that if they attend a liberal arts college they'll spend four or more years learning useless skills that will ill, if at all, prepare them for the job they'll need to recoup the money they put into the program in the first place?"

"I don't know."

"Remember the exit survey data that Beauregard sent around a few months ago, indicating seniors' perceptions of the education they'd received here? I seem to recall that we did pretty well on that survey, as regards perception of faculty attention."

"Yeah," my colleague agreed. "The seniors get it, they realize what we've got. But the students we're trying to recruit...the very best of the students we're trying to recruit, don't understand."

"Whose fault is this?" I asked rhetorically.

"Oh, it's our fault."

"But what are we supposed to do about it? What can we do better?"

"We need to get out the message that we offer small classes, that we offer individualized attention. Whenever we're advertised as a 'liberal arts college,' it turns students off. Whenever we emphasize the small class sizes students will find here, they're attracted to us."


My colleague had another meeting, and I had another class, so the conversation ended there. Busied with grading for the past day and a half, I've only now had a chance to reflect on the conversation and give more thought to its topic.

I'm not sure I understand any better now what I didn't get then.

Let's say that students simply don't understand the phrase "liberal arts," and perhaps instead of merely passively misunderstanding it and chalking it up as a phrase they don't know and are unlikely ever to (like "diffeomorphic" or "Weltanschauung"), they actively and horrifically misunderstand it to entail instruction irrelevant to any likely future employment. (I should note that historically this is the most frequent misinterpretation of the phrase. That it truly is a misinterpretation is shown by data I was made aware of this past Thursday at a department liaison luncheon with the university's Career Center staff: the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a professional organization for college staff devoted to career counseling, human resources, and so forth, recently released the results of a 2008 survey showing that all of the top ten skills employers desire in the people they hire are frequently and explicitly listed as learning goals in liberal arts courses.) Even given this misunderstanding, how on Earth do the students misunderstand "liberal arts" to entail large, impersonal lectures or standoffish professors who have no time for personal interaction with their students? Surely the next most common stereotype of a liberal arts education (after the erroneous one detailed above) involves a hirsute and betweeded tenured professor gathering several of his favorite students to climb up to the rooftop of their classroom building and there sit, overlooking the quad, while they smoke weed and contemplate the relevance of Derrida to modern-day indigenous dairy farmers. What aspect of that (also, perhaps more sadly!, erroneous) stereotype implies impersonality or aloofness?

I've just now pulled up the survey results that I'd mentioned in my conversation with my colleague, to see if I'd misremembered anything. I'm happy to say that the data are even richer than I'd remembered: we have midcourse data, too, from the sophomores. Here are the relevant figures.

From sophomores:

1. In response to the prompt "Please evaluate how well faculty members at this campus encourage student-faculty interaction in and out of the classroom," 83.0% of Asheville sophomores in 2008 indicated either "good" (3 on a 4-point Likert scale) or "excellent" (4 on the scale). This is 6 percentage points higher than the state university system as a whole (77.0%).

2. The prompt "Please evaluate how well faculty members at this campus care about your academic success and welfare" elicited even better results: Asheville sophomores responded with a 3 or a 4 87.8% of the time, compared with a score of 78.6% across the system (a 9.2-point differential).

3. While the prompt "How would you evaluate your access to your adviser?" garnered almost identical numbers from Asheville sophomores (77.1% 3s and 4s) and from UNC sophomores in general (77.0%), the prompt "How well would you evaluate [obtaining] sufficient time with your adviser?" received 3s and 4s from 77.7% of Asheville sophomores and only 64.7% of all UNC sophomores.

4. In response to the question "How many of your classes, if any, do you feel have been too large for you to learn effectively?" 64.8% of Asheville sophomores responded "none," while only 34.7% (!) of all UNC sophomores were able to make the same boast.

All of this goes to show that students catch on quickly once they've gotten here: while they might not know what they're in for before they get to campus, they soon realize that when it comes to attention from their faculty, they've got it better here than they would elsewhere in the system.

What about the seniors?

1. and 2. The same prompts given to the sophomores elicited similar results from 2008's crop of graduating seniors: 89.2% indicated that student-faculty interaction was either "good" or "excellent" (this mark is 6.2 higher than the Asheville sophomores and 5.1 points higher than the 84.1% mark earned by all UNC seniors in 2008) and 92.2% (4.4 points higher than the sophomores' mark and 5.6 points above the 86.6% given by all seniors) gave the same marks to faculty concern for students' academic success and welfare. If anything, the last two years of their studies further convince students that they've got a good thing going at a smaller school.

3. When it comes to their advising experience, 85.8% of Asheville seniors (as opposed to 77.0% of the sophomores) indicated that they had good or excellent access to their advisers, and 81.4% (as opposed to 77.7% of sophomores) indicated that they'd found it easy to obtain sufficient time with them. These figures compare even more favorably with their system-wide counterparts than the corresponding sophomore survey results: the "access" grade exceeds the system-wide mark of 77.2% by 8.6 points and the "time" grade exceeds the system-wide of 73.2% by 8.2 points.

Strangely enough the seniors were not asked about class size, as were the sophomores. I would hypothesize, however, that the bigger schools are likely to close some of the distance between themselves and UNC Asheville during those last couple of years, as juniors and seniors are much more likely to take a large number of seminar-style classes in their respective majors and therefore are likelier than sophomores to have experienced smaller classes, even at schools like UNC Chapel Hill and NC State.

Lest you think I'm cherry-picking the data, I should mention that the above items are all of those on either survey that deal directly with student-faculty interaction: I'm not trying to sweep anything under the rug.

In the middle of compiling the data above I summarized my conversation with my colleague to Maggie, and she posed an interesting hypothesis I'd not thought of: "maybe the kids who took the survey you were talking about are the ones who will get the attention of the faculty at the big research schools."

She's got a really good point: the superstars are the ones who get the lion's share of the bigger schools' top-tier researchers' attention, even in the early, pre-college, years of their academic careers. (I remember being courted by the University of Denver, my eventual alma mater, as the Engineering school attempted to get me to take part in its summer program for talented high school students. I believe this wooing was, whether or not I was consciously aware of it, one of the reasons I ended up going to DU.) Therefore it could be that the students who were surveyed already suppose that bigger schools' faculty are likelier to give them attention than are the faculty at a smaller school like UNC Asheville. This is even more surely the case of students at schools like the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and other hotbeds of adolescent excellence: which of NCSSM's students is going to think twice about heading for the mountains in the far-flung western corners of their state when world-famous scholars at Chapel Hill and State are already sending them personal invitations to join their research groups?

Nevertheless, we've got to get them to think twice.

So I ask the questions again: What are we supposed to do about this? What can we do better? Perhaps, to paraphrase one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, we don't need to do a better job, we just need better PR for the job we're already doing.

I'd love to hear from my readers, students and faculty alike: are you at a liberal arts school? Faculty, how is your school perceived by prospective students? Students, what's your perception of your school? What are the causes of that perception? What's your take on the conversation I had with my colleague? Do you have any answers or suggestions?

Please discuss. Five pages minimum, double-spaced, one-inch margins. Due Friday.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello DocTurtle - UNC Asheville has always had an identity crisis. Ask some of your older colleagues what "Little Harvard on the Hill" means. Let me give you a hint: it isn't a complement.
The benefit of a liberal arts education is best done on a word-of-month basis and most of the people in the Asheville area are at best, neutral on the value of UNCA.

Far too much time of administration is spent filling empty positions (before the freeze) and trying, desperately trying to get money. When these same leaders speak in the area and across the state, do they expound on the advantages of a liberal arts education or do they make a pitch about the project-du-jour: new athletic scholarship, Pisgah Palace, Craft Campus, and yes, the never-ending tuition increases because the faculty (not staff) aren't paid enough.

Imagine what could have been down with the $1,000,000 they magically found in a "trust fund" that was used to buy the Rhoades property.

This is a crisis of leadership.

Bottom line: UNCA can claim a liberal arts education is great but when UNCA's actions scream "greed is good", then don't be surprised when students get mixed messages.

At a more departmental level: what does (fill in your favorite major) graduates do with their lives? If a department can't give 20 examples of how a UNCA education made a difference in a student's life, what good was the degree to begin with?

Thanks for the article.

Down the Stairs and a Few Buildings Away