By Doug Ward

Most Americans still see a four-year degree as important, but it is not at the top of the list of things that will help someone achieve a successful career, a recent Heartland Monitor poll suggests.

In the poll, respondents ranked technology skills, an ability to work with diverse groups of people, keeping skills current, and having family connections above a four-year college degree.Graph showing poll responses about the importance of college from 1978 through 2015. The percentage of Americans describing a college education as “very important” peaked in 2010 before declining substantially. The decline looks much less dramatic, though, when the two “important” categories are combined.

They certainly didn’t dismiss a college education. More than half said a college degree was very important and 87 percent said it was either very or somewhat important. Those between age 18 and 29 ranked the importance of a degree slightly higher than those 30 and over (55 percent vs. 53 percent). Blacks and Hispanics looked at a degree more favorably than did whites.

The poll was sponsored by National Journal, Allstate and The Atlantic. In interpreting the results, the organizations said the responses about college were “a startling admission in the United States, where college has long been seen as a Holy Grail to the good life.”

Maybe. In context, though, it doesn’t look so startling.

I pieced together data from the Heartland poll and several polls conducted by Gallup for the scholarly organization Phi Delta Kappa. (Most of those are available through the database JStore.) Polls in 1978, 1983, 1985, 2010, 2013, and 2014 asked a question about the importance of college very similar to the one asked in the Heartland poll.

Most certainly, the percentage of Americans saying that a degree is very important has declined substantially since a peak of 75 percent in 2010. If the categories for “very important” and “somewhat” or “fairly” important are combined, though, the decline isn’t nearly so steep.

Those combined totals rose from 82 percent in 1978 to a peak of 96 percent in 2010 before declining to 87 percent in 2015.

In 2014, Gallup said the decline in the percentage of people who view a college degree as very important was surprising.

It is.

Most people still see a college degree as an important factor in achieving success on the job, yet they have also begun to look at other options, especially as a growing percentage of potential students delay their entrance to college for financial reasons.

Rather than stirring a panic for higher education, though, the polls add one more reason for colleges and universities to clean up their tarnished reputation.

The tech connection

Let’s dig a little deeper into the importance of technology skills.

In April, I wrote about a report from the Educational Testing Service that raised concerns about American millennials’ poor skills when compared with their counterparts around the world.

A report by a group of CEOs offers its own evaluation of that and other data, saying that 58 percent of millennials lack the basic skills they need to solve problems with technology. This is even as millennials use digital media for 35 hours a week, on average, the report said.

The CEO group, which is called Change the Equation, says that this lack of technological know-how will diminish millennials’ job prospects, if it already hasn’t. Most millennials don’t seem to understand how their lack of skills is hurting them, the report said, although only 37 percent of employers say young workers are prepared to stay current with new technologies.

“We must make a point of incorporating technology into how students learn to tackle problems. This does not mean that every young person needs to become a computer scientist, though more certainly should. Instead, students must learn to realize the full potential of technology as a critical aid to human productivity and invention,” the report said.

I don’t dispute the importance of technological savviness. I push my students to use technology for problem-solving, and I emphasize the importance of digital literacy.

Technology isn’t magic, though. Yes, students need technological skills, but that means using hardware and software to solve problems, answer questions, test ideas, communicate solutions, build communities, and stretch our potential.

That all starts with critical thinking, which should be the primary focus of all education. We must incorporate technology into that process. Technology is simply a means to an end, though.

Briefly …

JStor, the online archive, has started a teaching newsletter aimed at helping instructors integrate JStor material into lesson plans. … Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at Sussex University, warns universities against pursuing easy scapegoats in the quest to reduce sexual assault and sexual harassment. In an article for The Guardian, she says “we must avoid enabling institutions to blame particular students or activities for problems they themselves have had a hand in creating.”

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

True learning has little to do with memorization.

Benjamin Bloom explained that with enduring clarity 60-plus years ago. His six-tiered taxonomy places rote recall of facts at the bottom of a hierarchical order, with real learning taking place on higher tiers when students apply, analyze, synthesize, and create.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Deep learning, project-based learning and a host of other high-impact approaches have provided evidence to back up Bloom’s thinking. A study from the Programme for International Student Assessment adds even more evidence. It found that students who memorized mathematics material performed worse than those who approached math as critical thinking, Jo Boaler writes for The Hechinger Report.

Boaler, a professor at Stanford, says the United States has among the highest percentage of students who approach math as memorization. That’s not surprising, she says, because the teaching of math in the U.S. stresses memorization and speed of calculation for standardized tests. That not only narrows thinking, she says, but creates barriers to students who don’t learn well with memorization. Approaching math as problem solving, modeling, and reasoning expands thinking and expands math’s appeal to students.

“We don’t need students to calculate quickly in math,” Boaler writes. “We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models and communicate in different forms.”

That’s good advice for all disciplines.

Need a professor to respond? Try a sticky note. Really.Yellow sticky note with Professor, please take care of this. The sticky note survey says you will.

Experiments by Randy Garner of Sam Houston University found that professors are twice as likely to respond when a request is accompanied by a personal message on a sticky note, Harvard Business Review reports.

Writing for the Review, Kevin Hogan speculates on the reasons this approach works: It’s hard to ignore. It’s personal. And it creates a bit of neon clutter that the brain wants taken care of.

I’ve always considered duct tape a magic solution to most problems. Looks as if I’ll have to expand my toolkit.

Looking at K-12 as the key to raising college graduate rates

Michael J. Petrilli makes a good case that college graduation rates aren’t likely to improve significantly until students come to college better prepared.

Writing for the Thomas B. Forham Institute, he cites statistics showing that the percentage of “college prepared” students (35 percent in 2005) nearly matched the graduation rate of those students eight years later. He says that indicates that most students who are well-prepared for college eventually graduate.

“But until we start making significant progress at the K12 level — and get many more students to the college-ready level before they land on campus — our dreams for significantly boosting the college completion numbers seem certain to be dashed,” Petrilli writes.

Briefly …

The percentage of students needing remedial math courses at Colorado colleges and universities has declined for three years in a row, Education News reports. Among students who started college in 2013, 34.2 percent needed remedial math, down from 40 percent in 2011. (Rates in other states vary widely.)  … Eduardo Porter of The New York Times asks whether the federal government shouldn’t get a share of profits from federally financed research ventures in academia. He cites Tesla, Google, GPS, and touch-screen technology as examples of projects that emerged from taxpayer-supported research. … Google has made recordings of its Education on Air event available for viewing. One caveat: All the sessions have separate links but are part of a single video file of more than five hours. That makes skipping among the sessions a challenge.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

I often roll my eyes at articles that take millennials to task for not measuring up to the standard of the day. All too often, baby boomers and those in generations before seem to wag their fingers at young people and spew out curmudgeonly laments that inevitably start with, “When I was your age …”

question on reading a chart from ETS survey
Sample questions, above and below, from the international survey of millennials’ skills

As I dug into a new report by the Educational Testing Service, though, I began to buy into the concerns it raises about the skills of American millennials when compared with those of their counterparts worldwide. (ETS creates the GRE and TOEFL tests, among others.) The new report, written by Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, is called “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future.”

Across the board, data from the study suggest that Americans rank near the bottom in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (things like using digital maps and calculating the price of tickets from a kiosk). This holds true for high school graduates and for those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A decade ago, the skill level of American adults was judged ‘mediocre,’” the authors write. “Now it is below even that.”

More education, fewer skills

The 82 million American millennials – those born after 1980 – have received more formal education than any previous generation, the authors write, yet their demonstration of skills in literacy and numeracy are middling at best. The U.S. is the wealthiest among 22 nations where the test was administered, but it is also “the most economically unequal.”

Given the poor performance of American millennials on these tests, the report says, we should “consider critically the value that higher education in the U.S. is contributing to the skills of our young adults,” adding: “For education to be a vehicle to future success, for it to fuel the American Dream, it has to be aligned with an economy that values the skills it imparts, and those skills must be translatable to tangible opportunities.”

One of the most interesting – and ominous – assertions the report makes is that the growing economic inequality in American society today is very likely to compound the disparity in skills. Students whose parents hold college degrees generally have greater skills in literacy and math than those whose parents have only high school diplomas. As the cost of college rises and economic inequality grows, those at the top will have great access to education and the opportunities it brings while those at the bottom will have fewer opportunities.

sample map from ETS survey“A very real danger lies in perpetuating a cycle where low skill levels, less income, and less access to quality education will beget a further entrenchment of deep inequality, with some segments of society more at risk than others,” the authors write.” This is the very opposite of what a meritocratic society purports to offer.”

For instance, scores of blacks and Hispanics were 15 to 24 percent below those of their white counterparts, depending upon the age group. As the report explains, though, whites and Asian-Americans still scored below the average for all those who took the tests internationally.

What can we do?

Tests of all kinds tend to do a much better job of measuring students’ ability to take tests than they do in measuring their ability to apply skills in a realistic setting. I’m also suspicious of “the sky is falling” reports about education. The sky has been falling since at least the 1970s. As I said earlier, though, I’ve had trouble finding fault with this study.

Perhaps the main weakness in the study is its lack of solutions. It makes a strong case that the skills of American millennials rank below those of their international counterparts. It doesn’t explain why or how to fix the problem, though. Here are some obvious ones:

De-emphasize standardized testing. Instead of fixating on standardized testing, give teachers the freedom to help students learn in meaningful ways. Many are doing that already with blended learning, project-based learning, team-based learning, and other methods. Until schools adopt a teacher evaluation system that uses standardized tests as a small part of a much larger portfolio, teachers will focus on test scores.

Make skills matter. Today’s academic culture promotes the idea of education as a product rather than a process of learning. Reversing that will require more meaningful demonstrations of skills over grades and a diploma. And until universities stop basing admissions decisions on standardized test scores, the ability to take those tests will matter far more than than more meaningful skills.

Emphasize active learning. As Maryellen Weimer writes in Faculty Focus: “We can’t seem to disavow ourselves of the notion that teachers should do most of the talking.” Active learning helps students gain crucial skills. Wide-scale of adoption of active learning is unlikely occur, though, until instructors are rewarded for taking risks.

Value teaching. Higher education still lacks a meaningful reward system for high-quality teaching. Until we change that, teaching will play a diminished role that results in diminished skills for students.

The problem is far more complex than any of those solutions, but those areas can at least provide an entry into a much-needed and, as the ETS report emphasizes, increasingly urgent problem.

Briefly …

Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State, Pueblo, says that the university tenure system “is on life support” but deserves to be saved because it “is the best form of quality control that higher education has.” … The UK is struggling to recruit and retain teachers, investment in education has dropped, and student skills lag, The Guardian reports, saying, “Education has never mattered more, so why won’t the UK invest in it properly?” … Educause has joined other organizations in expressing concern about the discriminatory aspects of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Information Act. In an email message, the organization’s president and CEO, Diana Oblinger, said Educause had been looking for alternative sites to Indianapolis for its October conference and had written a letter to Indiana’s governor. … Three white papers issued by the U.S. Senate “show that lawmakers are considering significant changes in the ways colleges are evaluated and held accountable for student outcomes,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

How can we grade participation more effectively?

Maryellen Weimer argues that the way we usually grade participation in our classes doesn’t work. That is, many students still don’t join the conversations for fear of looking dumb. The typical grading approach also rewards quantity over quality. In an article in Faculty Focus, she writes about a colleague’s solution to this: using “extra-credit engagement tickets” students earn by completing assignments on time, joining online discussions, and submitting questions electronically. I agree with the logic, but the solution seems more complicated than I’m willing to attempt. This is definitely something that deserves more attention from most faculty members, though.

Chart for definitions of rigor
This pyramid shows one of several ways that the authors of “Developing a Student Conception of Academic Rigor” describe students’ perception of rigor.

What does ‘rigor’ in a course mean?

Students tend to equate a course’s rigor with workload rather than higher-order thinking, according to a study in the latest issue of Innovative Higher Education. That is, if a course required students to read or write more than they were used to, they generally considered it rigorous. The same held true if a student thought the professor’s grading standards were higher or if the student had little or no previous experience with the course content. This differs from faculty members’ idea of rigor, which the authors described as “learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation within a given context.” The authors say that students and faculty need to understand these divergent views so that colleges and universities can better address the importance of academic standards. The study is called “Developing a Student Conception of Academic Rigor.”


Study questions value of degrees from for-profit online institutions

Research by the National Bureau of Economic Research strongly suggests that employers value degrees from public institutions over those from for-profit online institutions. The authors of a white paper posted on the bureau’s website found that candidates with bachelor’s degrees from for-profit online institutions were 20 percent less likely to receive a request for an interview or for additional information from employers than those with degrees from public institutions. (A 2012 employer survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education found similar perceptions.) They say that given the high costs, degrees from those for-profit institutions “do not appear to be a sound investment.”

Briefly …

Meris Stansbury of eCampus News writes about the steps involved in a competency-based education program, and about the fluid definition of those types of programs. … An anonymous graduate student, writing in The Guardian, argues that colleges and universities need to more transparent about the time commitments of graduate teaching assistants. “Teaching is often regarded as something of an afterthought to doctoral completion, something fobbed off on those considered just competent enough,” the writer says.