The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

December 22, 2011

Diversity: it's not just an admissions issue anymore

The Obama administration’s new call for universities to increase diversity on campus is probably a welcome one for many schools. After years of court battles over state university admissions policies, centered on the University of Michigan, colleges and universities now have greater clarity about which levers they’re allowed to pull to attract a more ethnically diverse pool of applicants. But what happens when those more diverse classes get to campus?

Much research has been done on the benefits of being in school with a more diverse group of peers. For example, a recent study discussed in the book How College Affects Students notes that exposure to fellow students of diverse backgrounds is one of the key factors influencing whether freshmen return for their sophomore year and whether their experience improves their critical thinking skills. Think about that: more diverse classmates and dorm-mates leads to a more positive, successful undergrad experience.

And our own research for highly selective universities and grad schools has shown that prospects value diversity and take it into consideration when deciding which schools to apply to. When it comes to attracting underrepresented minorities, it certainly helps when they see people who look like them on campus, ideally both students and professors.

That research is echoed in the new guidelines, which were issued jointly by attorney general Eric Holder and education secretary Arne Duncan. "Diverse learning environments," says Holder in the accompanying press release, “promote development of analytical skills, dismantle stereotypes, and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world.”

All true. I’m as strong a believer as anyone that greater diversity along all kinds of dimensions — racial, gender, socio-economic, geographic, attitudinal — in higher education is a good thing. What schools need to realize, though, is that with that greater diversity comes a greater need for support for those new members of the student body. Some of our research has shown that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as those who are the first generation in their family to attend college, struggle with the demands and format of postsecondary education more than other students do. They’re more likely to have jobs, work more hours, and be less involved in co-curricular activities. In one study, we found that they needed more help from their advisors that other students did — but were less likely to seek out that help. These diverse newcomers can benefit from greater support, whether academic, co-curricular or social, to help them navigate the unfamiliar landscape.

Yet many schools don’t invest in such support programs, in part because they are not aware of those needs and in part because they don’t want to stereotype their new arrivals or treat them differently on the basis of ethnicity. The ideal is a melting pot, whether or not it actually exists.

Of course, those support programs are also an additional expense for the schools. So that well-intentioned reluctance to engage in anything like profiling may also mask a reluctance to spend more on student-life and academic counseling.

Whatever its causes, that reluctance is a shame. If a school embraces increased diversity as a strategic goal, it ought to carry that strategy through to the  students it affects, by acknowledging and meeting their unique needs. It’s also a good long-term decision: supporting underrepresented minorities and first-generation students would likely contribute to higher retention and graduation rates, and that means stronger rankings and better applicant pools. It may be an additional expense, but it makes both ethical and academic sense.

Does your institution support diversity just at the admissions stage, or throughout the student experience?

Categories: College admissions & marketing, Higher ed, Student research
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March 14, 2011

NEA report #2: Declining arts education, declining audiences

Last week I wrote about one of the three new reports that the National Endowment for the Arts released, each of which looks at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts through a different lens. Today we’ll turn to Nick Rabkin’s eye-opening analysis of trends in arts education. We all knew the picture wouldn’t be pretty, but…

Rabkin has been studying and working in arts education for many years and knows the territory cold; he’s currently wrapping up a five-year, multi-funder study of the role of teaching artists in schools and other settings. (Full disclosure: Nick’s a friend, and he and I are developing a research project together.) Rabkin and his co-author, E.C. Hedberg, are both at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, where Rabkin is also affiliated with the Cultural Policy Center.

Their paper, Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation [pdf], dives into two big questions. That there’s less arts education going on in our schools these days is no surprise, but how much less, and for which students? And we’ve known for some time that arts education in childhood is linked to later participation in the arts, but how does the evidence for that link hold up, and what does it imply for arts policy and arts management?

The answers here are pretty grim (my sentiment, not necessarily Rabkin and Hedberg’s). The authors’ ingenious parsing of the SPPA data reveals that arts education rose steadily from the 1930s to the 1970s, which helped create a large national audience for the arts and thereby fueled the terrific growth of the nonprofit arts sector in America: the rise of “a dazzling and diverse collection” of “producing institutions and venues in cities and towns coast to coast.”

But, as you can see, something happened in the late-’70s and ’80s, a reversal that’s unusually abrupt for macro-level social change. Who threw the switch? Probably the back-to-basics school reformers, who gathered steam around that time (and who eventually won passage of No Child Left Behind in 1992). They viewed the arts as a luxury, “soft” goods with no direct impact on broader educational outcomes.

The worst part — and for me the real bombshell of the study — is that the declines in childhood arts education since 1982 have been absorbed almost entirely by African American and Hispanic children. If you look only at white respondents to the survey, there’s been some variation but no decline from 1982 to 2008. It’s the non-white communities where the drop has been precipitous. Although the data is inherently sketchy, the authors believe these declines occurred mostly in in-school arts education, not the voluntary, after-school kind (like private music or dance lessons). ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Research findings, Student research, Survey research
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February 12, 2010

Letting their hair down, awkwardly

Yale’s already-infamous musical admissions video shows how easy it is for institutions to come across as old fashioned even when they’re using new media.

Billed as an “independent an independent collaboration between Yale undergraduates and recent alumni working in the admissions office,” the 17 minute video is a slickly-produced, peppy campus musical number in which students sing and dance answers to the question that all college recruitment videos (and viewbooks and brochures) are meant to answer: it’s titled “That’s Why I Chose Yale.”

The Gawker took its swings shortly after the video was released in mid January, and a post at IvyGate was titled “That’s Why I Chose to Ram a Soldering Iron Into My Ears.” At some point the university felt it prudent to disable the ratings and comment features on YouTube.

This week even the New Yorker couldn’t restrain itself from jumping on the pileup, running a “Talk of the Town” piece about the embarrassed giggles and cringing bewilderment of Yale alumni who have seen the video...although some of them couldn’t bear to watch the whole thing.

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the very prescription for success in the YouTube era? The video was a participatory creative act rather than a top-down fiat. It let the students speak — okay, sing — for themselves about the university, not unlike MIT’s pioneering student blogs on its admissions page (which my colleague Bill wrote about in a recent post). It uses contemporary media to meet its audiences on their own turf. It delivers its message with energy and enthusiasm, avoiding the rationalist trap into which so many educational and cultural marketing efforts fall. And it’s an innovation, a risk: just what the doctors have been ordering.

So what’s wrong with this (motion) picture?

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, Higher ed, Institutional personality, Museums, Performing arts, Social media, Student research
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »

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