What’s the value of an undergrad education? With pandemic, researchers look for answer

Monday, November 2, 2020 - 8:04pm

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Infographic by Mariah Parker

Researchers at the University of California-Irvine and the University of Michigan are  studying the value of obtaining an undergraduate education during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

UC-Irvine’s project, The Next Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project, will “inform the development” of a long-term study of universities across the country coordinated by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan. 

The Next Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project uses data collection to better understand the value of a liberal arts undergraduate education. The project creates an academic profile for each student via student academic records, course information, declared majors and the professors teaching students. Extracurricular activities and social interactions tracked by the project are eventually combined with the academic profile to create a holistic view of an undergraduate student’s life. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the project is examining components about learning management systems and surveys on student emotional and mental well-being more closely. Survey questions ask about how students are experiencing the pandemic, the move to online instruction, new responsibilities and resource constraints. 

The University invited Richard Arum, the dean of education at the University of California-Irvine and professor of sociology and education, to discuss UC Irvine’s The Next Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project on Oct. 23 as part of the College and Beyond II seminars. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, both the UC Irvine project and the University of Michigan project seek to utilize student data to get a better picture of liberal arts education in American universities. 

“We found that students did, first of all, experience a lot of worries when we started the move to remote instructions that their academic progress would be threatened and undermined,” Arum said. 

UC Irvine’s project found that students who were taking the same amount of credits saw an increase in their GPA. Their stress levels also increased, but only affected academics modestly. 

“Students continue to accumulate credits; their GPAs remained high,” Arum said. “In fact, they actually increased after the remote instruction for a complicated number of reasons we can talk about. Some people were feeling elevated stress but it really has not gotten into the way of academic progress the way in many of the worst-case scenarios.”

Arum said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped social scientists answer a previously understudied part of student education. Researchers now divide students’ education into a two-by-two table: undergraduates who live on campus or off campus and those who learn online or in person. Before, no one really knew how students who live on campus and study online fare academically.

“What we now have is there are students at UCI and at the University of Michigan that are in that box,” Arum said. 

Public Policy professor Paul Courant heads the long-term research project at the University called the College and Beyond II Project. The project takes elements of a liberal arts education to build a student profile and compare that profile to alumni via surveys.

The purpose of the project is to understand how a liberal arts education impacts a student’s future. The College of Beyond II Project archives transcripts and measures the intellectual breadth of an undergraduate student by examining the types of courses students take to meet the core distribution. The data is then compared to how a student goes about their life after college.

Timothy McKay, dean for undergraduate education at LSA, said College and Beyond II emphasizes the outcomes of students who had a liberal arts education.

“We aim to connect information that happened in college,” McKay said. “So you can see the connection they focus a little bit more on the beginning, and we’re connecting it to later in life, but we’re all engaged in the same kind of what's going on here and what does it mean.” 

Public Policy senior Arushi Gupta, president of the Ford School of Public Policy’s Undergraduate Council, said she values a liberal arts education. She said she hopes people will begin to understand why a liberal arts education is important through hard numbers. 

Gupta used an analogy to express how both projects’ usage of numbers and data will help people understand the value better.

“When we’re doing things like budgeting, if you are allocating money to a college, having hard numbers is a lot more convincing for the people who are giving out the money than just having anecdotes about student experience,” Gupta said.

Through her experience working at the Sweetland Writing Center, Gupta said she has seen a lot of students come in who she believes need a push towards the humanities and arts. She thinks this research project will bring to light how important these fields are, even for STEM-oriented students.

“I think it would be interesting to have a research study that comes out and says what everyone thinks is actually true and it is valuable and we should be teaching people who are going to be doctors or engineers how to also write and communicate well,” Gupta said. 

Daily News Contributor Daisey Yu can be reached at yudaisey@umich.edu


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