New & Noteworthy – Items of Interest in Higher Education
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New & Noteworthy
in Higher, Liberal & Classical Education

January 2013
Once upon a time, if memory serves, undergraduate education was about personal and intellectual growth, thinking hard about one’s values, experiencing literature, art and a broad historical perspective on the contemporary world. And , of course, preparing to take part in that world as a worker and citizen. College was about transformation and a liberal education was the vehicle for getting there. Too romantic? If so, don’t worry, American culture has changed - big time.
Amid all the hullabaloo about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) - some of it below - let’s not forget the major. That’s where students spend most of their class time and where faculty devote most of their efforts at curricular improvement. And the choice of a major is often a big deal for students, even more so for hyper-anxious parents, and for journalists and politicians. Take a look…
Should English majors pay higher tuition than Engineers? That’s the leading idea of a Blue Ribbon commission appointed by Governor Rick Scott of Florida:
and: The idea is that majors in non-strategic fields should subsidize ones in specialties the state really needs.
Meanwhile in Virginia: The Virginia legislature passed legislation intended to provide insights into the initial salaries attained by recent graduates of various institutions in the state. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in partnership with the American Institute for Research (AIR) produced a report with “program-specific data for the wages of recent graduates18 months after graduation.” The AIR report can be seen at:
A tabulation of the data, more detailed and probably more accurate than the AIR report, is available at:
Figure 1. of the AIR report gives state-wide averages for first-year wages for the most popular Bachelor’s Degree programs. Registered nurses, it says, led the pack at $48,959.
Then came:
Finance                                                  $42,131
Accounting                                             $42,110
Economics                                             $39,298
Business Administration                           $38,578
And at the bottom:
Sociology                                              $30,044
History                                                  $30,230 (sic)
Psychology                                            $29,040
English                                                  $29,222
Biology                                                 $27,893
The Virginia State Council is now emphasizing that “there is unquestionably much more to life and education than getting a job” but it has sent a powerful signal about what the government of the state thinks really counts.
Kiplinger Magazine’s Ten Worst Majors for your Career: “Using data from and Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (, we looked for majors whose graduates—both recent grads (within the past five years) and those well into their careers—face a brutal combination of low compensation and high unemployment.” 
Here’s Kiplinger’s list:
10. English
9. Sociology
8. Drama and Theater Arts
7. Liberal Arts
6. Studio Arts
5. Graphic Design
4. Philosophy and Religious Studies
3. Film and Photography
2. Fine Arts
1. Anthropology
Pushback: Several projects are in the works responding to the cultural shift reflected in these publications.  Will such commissions be more successful than similar ones in the past? Sure, piece of cake. All they have to do is change the dominant mode of discourse and provide compelling evidence to back up their recommendations. In this data-driven age, anecdotes and old pieties don’t get very far. 
The Chickens Come Home to Roost: The way we talk often shapes the way we act. Leaders of higher education have long spoken of college as an “investment.”  So, of course, people want to know about the annualized return on the investment. (The answer according to Business Week varies from 12.6% at MIT and Cal Tech to 4.3% at Black Hills State in South Dakota, and a bunch of other places.)  
When it comes to majors, the current discussion, as we have seen, is often framed as ‎"Jobs vs. Knowledge." My reply to our local paper on that subject, called “Outside the Box,” can be read at:

Where’s the case made for personal satisfaction and well-being? How to get satisfaction into the discussion – would a major by major report similar in some respects to Forbes’ list of the “happiest jobs” open up a useful discussion:
Is there evidence that majors matter? I’m no statistician but it sure looks that way to me, at least when we think about critical thinking and analytical writing :
Now there is a more sophisticated study by Jeffry T. Steedle and Michael Bradley “Majors Matter: Differential Performance on a Test of General College Outcomes”  Their conclusion “… students studying natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities and languages scored the highest, and students studying business and education scored the lowest.” This confirms the work that Richard Arum and others have done (also based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment).
In the meantime, what?  But these studies do not deal with individual majors, even though we would expect some differences between fields within their broad groupings, for example between Communications and Foreign Languages in the Humanities or Agriculture and the Physical Sciences. Since changes in the major have to take place at the departmental level, we clearly need more fine grained analysis of the effects of the major.
How Well Are Students in Various Majors Learning?  In an article published on the Texas Public Policy Foundation website, “How Much Are University of Texas Students Learning?” (9/11/12) Thomas Lindsay asks “why some academic majors — both at UT and nationally — consistently place at the bottom when it comes to their academic “value-added,” as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Can we justify continuing to offer majors that produce little to no increase in students’ abilities to think critically, engage in complex reasoning, compute and write?”
Time on Task:  NSSE data ( as summarized  in Julie Mack’s blog suggest that many students are not spending a lot of time on homework:
  Studying Socializing  
Engineering 19 9    
Physical Science 18 11    
Bio. Science 17 11    
Arts & Humanities 17 12    
Education 15 13    
Soc. Sciences 14 13    
Business 14 16    
See also the chart in NSSE annual report for 2011, p. 15
And this summary “First-year students spent an average of 15 hours per week preparing for class, and seniors averaged one half-hour more. Those earning grades of A or A- studied about four more hours per week than their first-year peers with grades of C+ or lower.” If students were pushed a bit harder, could we  expect significant gains in learning?
Foreign Languages: There’s reason to think that majoring in a foreign language leads to impressive growth of critical thinking and analytical reasoning, or so I argued in “Do Majors Matter?”
What about Classics? It may be grouped under “Foreign Languages” in many studies (it’s hard to tell) but that scarcely does justice to a field that uses multiple methods and may include languages, literature, history, archaeology, philosophy, religion, myth and, as they say, much, much more? It clearly needs better evidence about student learning. That’s why some of us are eagerly awaiting a Teagle funded study by Rachelle Brooks of Northwestern University.
While we are waiting for major-by-major analyses of cognitive and personal growth, it makes sense to do an inventory of well documented “high impact practices” at the institutional level, for example the list that has been developed by The National Survey of Student Engagement

At the classroom level results from the Wabash Study, led by Charles Blaich, point to four clusters of practices that make a big difference in student cognitive and personal growth. They are summarized in “Let’s Improve Learning. OK, but How?”
Do Origins Matter? Yes, I argue in "The Shrinking Humanities":
A Thought Experiment: Try reading Socrates’ prayer at the end of Plato’s Phaedrus as an educational manifesto:
My dear Pan and any other gods inhabiting this place! Grant that my inner self becomes beautiful, and let whatever I am on the outside be in harmony with what's inside. Let me count the wise wealthy, and may the size of my fortune be only as great as what a prudent person can bear or manage.
Plato, Phaedrus 279 BC, translated by William Berg
This is a follow-up to the last Newsletter "Special Issue: Mostly on MOOCs"
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continue to dominate the discussion of higher education. Here are a few recent items that may help bring this development into focus.
Overview: There’s a good overview in Nicholas Carr, “The Crisis in Higher Education”  MIT Technology Review including this handy table:
e-institutions 2

Βenefits? Peter Struck who has been teaching a MOOC emailed me: “Going down this path means getting to know a new medium for teaching. As a new medium it will have strengths and weakness.  …there is also a great reason to do it from the standpoint of student learning: it means making teaching an emphatically *public* event.  … and it starts a vigorous discussion about how to make the best learning environment possible. Next we'll find out the limitations of the medium. This story will take longer to work out. What is possible beyond data transfer with short video lecture segments?  Can we achieve the transformative effects all of us care most about in a core liberal arts education?  Jury on that is still out for me, but there's no question the experiment is worth a try.”
And in a later message “ … TV didn't make plays go away, and recorded music didn't make live concerts disappear. That the latter versions are way more expensive applies here too. But now we'll need to sharpen [the] case for why that expense is worth it. I think that here the humanities are actually in a more advantageous position. The fields that are more or less based on the idea that education is data transfer will have a harder time making the case.”
“Perhaps the greatest promise of digitally enhanced learning,” argued Candace Thille of Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative, “may be as much in improving the efficacy of high-quality instruction as in expanding access to it.”
Her project focuses not only on building high-quality digital courses but especially on using the student-level data collected from them to determine when students are getting “stuck” (individually and collectively) and improve the design of those courses to smooth out those bumps. Ironically, it’s in looking at “massive” amounts of data about how students pick up (or don’t) certain content that educators may best understand how individuals learn, she said. 
Credit for MOOCs?  We have been saying it all along. It’s inevitable that college credit will be given for the successful completion of MOOCs.  Now it’s happening – for humanities courses first off! See Tamar Lewin “Students Rush to Web Classes but Profits May Be Much Later” in the New York Times on January 7, 2013 She reports that Antioch University in Los Angeles will give “credit for successfully completing two Coursera courses, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and Greek and Roman Mythology, both taught by professors from the University of Pennsylvania. Antioch would be the first college to pay a licensing fee - Ms. Koller would not say how much - to offer the courses to its students at a tuition lower than any four-year public campus in the state.”
Feet to the Fire? Does Coursera or EdX have plans to assess its students’ progress toward long-term cognitive growth, for example in critical thinking, moral reasoning etc. If colleges and university courses are assessed through CLA and other methods shouldn’t MOOCs be assessed this way as well?
$$$???:  How will MOOCs make money, and how much will tuition be? It’s becoming clearer: “Students who want a 'verified certificate' from Coursera will have to decide early in the course and pay upfront… The company and colleges are still struggling to decide what to charge for the certificates, though in its latest announcement Coursera said the price would run $30 to $100.”  So Jeffry Young reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education  
Do the numbers: If 10,000 students pay $30 each, that’s $300,000 for Coursera. If a student can get a Bachelor’s degree for completing 32 such courses, her total tuition cost might be under $1,000. Is this the future?
The world’s oldest joke book: translated by Bill Berg is on line at:

Special Thanks to:
Carla Antonaccio
Alice Brown
Denis Feeney
Chris Graebner
Linda Rupert
Facebook says I am Walter Robert Connor. Google says I am One way or the other let me know what your experience of higher education is like these days. 
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