Category Archives: Opinion

Five (Very Different) Books on American Higher Education

Higher education is facing many problems: the cost is way too high, students are underserved, dropping out at alarming rates, and have skyrocketing mental health issues. Why are these things happening? How do we fix it? I don’t have the answers, but I certainly have reading recommendations. As I’ve moved professionally in to education research, particularly focused on improving academic outcomes for diverse students, I’ve taken a great interest in reading as much as I can and engaging with varied perspectives on the state of higher education. Below are five very different books on higher education and why you should read them. Enjoy.


The College Dropout Scandal by David Kirp

The take: Higher education’s dirty little secret is that an enormous number of students are not graduating. How many? On average, around 40% at public 4-year state universities – key word being average. Graduation rates are much lower at some universities, and bad at community colleges. (Of course, the highly selective public universities and the Ivy’s don’t have this problem with over 90% of their students graduating.) Why is this happening? Lots of reasons, but mostly because public universities are serving incredibly diverse student populations. Diverse in life experience, diverse in educational background, and diverse in goals. The short answer: our institutions are not ready to serve the diverse student populations they now have as a result of expanding access to higher education.

Why you should read it: The hemorrhaging of college students at our nations public universities may be problem most university administrations fail to tackle with actionable, effective solutions, but there are a few shinning stars that have solved this problem. Yes, it’s possible to actually serve and educate diverse students at a single institution. Georgia State, CUNY, Rutgers University-Newark, University of Texas, Long Beach State, and University of Central Florida are living proof. The College Dropout Scandal shows how administration can make a difference in student outcomes, and serves as an invaluable resource for those working in higher education that are trying to make their institutions better.


The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

The take: What is happening on our college campuses? It’s now normal to hear of students de-platforming politically incorrect, conservative, or controversial speakers. Adult students need emotional safe spaces and coloring books. The use of mental health services is skyrocketing. These social trends are alarming for many reasons, but their cause is unknown. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that what we’re seeing is largely a result of helicopter parenting and a failure of children developing resilience, problem-solving capabilities, and of social-emotional skills. The result is high anxiety, entitled demands, and continued coddling.

Why you should read it: This book is controversial. Disagreements abound, there are very serious changes in child rearing and young adult social trends that all educators should be taking seriously whether they agree with the Coddling’s thesis. Free speech is being challenged at universities, despite free speech, exchange of ideas, and exploration being the foundation of liberal education. Today’s generation Z has been raised under more careful supervision and non-independence than previous generations, which those who study human development know to be a disservice and impediment to children’s social-emotional development. Their take is more of a hypothesis for what’s going wrong socially and culturally on today’s college campuses, but it’s a hypothesis worthy of engagement and discussion.


The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, by Paul Tough

The take: Higher education is said to be the surest path to economic mobility, helping students access higher ranks of American socioeconomic class. But does American education deliver on its promise? Not always. Paul Tough takes an intimate, investigative journey into the how the current educational system is failing too many students. He works through the systems of higher education from college decision making, test prep and admissions, to student belonging and retention. The Years That Matter Most was truly an eye-opener for me to understand where higher education is going wrong. You can read more about my thoughts on this book here.

Why you should read it: The approach Tough takes in this book is personal and intimate. Each stage of the higher education system that he highlights is complemented by real student stories – stories of high-achieving, well-deserving students that are butting up against the flaws in our system. If you want a student perspective on higher education to really get a grasp at the ways in which we’re not fully serving our students, this book will not disappoint.


The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan

The take: We all know higher education is, honestly, an enormous rip off. It is way, way too expensive and everyone knows it. So, why do we keep buying it? Because we have to—employers demand it. Caplan argues that obtaining a university degree is mostly signaling to employers that your IQ is high enough, you’re relatively conscientious, and conformist. How much of your degree is signaling? He says around 80% but there’s room for debate. He shows with enormous amounts of data the continued arms-race that is occurring between employer demands and higher education is leaving students with useless degrees and crippling debt. From the macro perspective, higher education is a waste. From your personal perspective, you should get a degree (in an applied discipline).

Why you should read it: Any data packed book on a relevant topic is deserving of a read, or at least a skim of the tables. But Caplan exposes glaring flaws in the connection between higher education and employment. Why does a bachelor’s degree in art history, psychology, or literature qualify you for a range of basic office jobs if your content knowledge is nearly useless on the job? Why do you only get the college pay-off if you graduate? If your knowledge was truly worth something to employers, you’d think you’d get a pay bump for any college credits, but you don’t. And if you ever wondered whether your major matters, it does. If you’re a parent with children deciding on college or working in higher education, you should read this to better advise students. Also, it was one of my favorite books I read last year.


Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s School Back to Reality, by Charles Murray

The take: Real Education takes a very different approach to higher education than the books mentioned above. Murray’s thesis rests on the idea that human ability varies, and therefore not all students that go to college should necessarily be in college (see The College Dropout Scandal for how many students aren’t finishing!). He highlights a big problem in American education: the devaluing of skilled-labor and vocation training. Note everyone needs to be an engineer or lawyer. Given these realities, he argues that too many students are going to college, and we should redirect training resources and high school courses on vocational careers. Higher education should be primarily reserved for student above average, intellectually speaking.

Why you should read it: Don’t let his name turn you off – it’s a great book that makes very valid arguments. Essentially, Real Education is a different solution the problem outlined in The College Dropout Scandal. We as a society value the college path over the vocational and labor paths, and the result is an enormous proportion of college student dropping out, with lots of debt and no degree. If we can’t graduate students, we’re actually leaving them worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college in many cases (not good!). Unlike Kirp who argues for colleges changing to serve new student populations, Murray’s argument is to only admit high-achieving students (i.e., high SAT scores). This is not an unpopular perspective in the academy—and exactly why you should read it.


So, what is the state of higher education today? How do we fix its problems? There is certainly no straightforward answer to such a complex question, but the answer will certainly involve nuanced discussion and hearing from a variety of perspectives, such as those above. Remember, you can disagree that higher education is only for the IQ elite, but that does not mean you should not engage with the perspective and work to understand it. Each of these authors provides a valid take on higher education today. Each have contributed to my own perspective of higher education, and my views on higher education – its problems and solutions – continue to evolve as I engage with diverse perspectives. I encourage you to engage as well.

Ethnic Spaces on Campus Positively Impact Minorities, but Not Whites: What are Potential Inclusive Solutions?

A new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science tests how ethnic and cultural spaces on college campuses impact perceptions, experiences, and outcomes for minority and White students. Ethnic spaces increased minority students sense of belonging, their perception of how much the university values minority students, their felt support by the university, and their reported academic engagement. For White students, however, ethnic spaces decreased their perceived support from the university and lowered their reports of future campus engagement; ethnic spaces did increase White’s perception of how much the university values minority students.

Source

These results are a net positive for universities. As the authors suggest, ethnic spaces are one way in which universities can foster a sense of belonging for minority students on campus—and important component to closing equity gaps in academic outcomes.

Ethnic spaces on college campuses, however, are also subject to debate. There has been a lot of controversy over the years about who can use these spaces, and whether barring White students from these campus spaces is racist (it is), and whether the spaces are being used enough to justify their building cost.

Findings of this new study in SPPS shed some light on some of these controversial issues. On the one hand, ethnic spaces do positively impact minority students, but on the other hand, White students feel less supported. Additional analyses in the paper also show that the positive effects for Black and Hispanic students (the majority of the underrepresented minority sample in this research) are not dependent on actual or perceived usage of the space, “suggesting that [ethnic spaces] served as a signal of a more welcoming university context for underrepresented students” (emphasis added).


So, what are some practical insights that can be gathered from these new findings? First, creating a sense of belonging for underrepresented groups is important and can have a positive impact on those students. Higher education institutions that want to better academic outcomes for all of their students should focus on the idea of institutional belonging. Are ethnic spaces the best way to foster a sense of belonging? Maybe. In my opinion, I think that universities can both create spaces to celebrate ethnic diversity, be inclusive to all students, and be a good financial investment for the university. Finding the sweet spot of all these goals is possible.

It seems that the primary goal of ethnic centers is to give students a space to hang out, be themselves, be around like others, and hold events. For example, here is a description of ethnic spaces at Virginia Tech:

“These centers consist of a room or several rooms, ranging from 564 to 1,400 square feet each, equipped with televisions, sofas, chairs, tables, and bookshelves. But they are more than physical spaces for students to hang out, do homework, rest, and host club meetings, choir rehearsals, and other gatherings. They are judgment-free spaces where students say they can be themselves.”

This is another description of ethnic spaces that were used in the SPPS study at University of Washington:

“In support of the goals of the University of Washington, the Ethnic Cultural Center promotes an inclusive and educational environment by providing programs and services which enhance the communication and exchange of multicultural perspectives and values. The Ethnic Cultural Center provides programs and a learning environment where students and student organizations collaborate, develop and implement programs while building leadership and organizational skills.”

It seems that the goal of ethnic centers should be more than to provide spaces for particular students to hang out, and more focused on supporting particular students in the academic journeys. A good example of a ethnic center that has a clear mission is the University of Utah:

“Using a pan-African lens, the Black Cultural Center seeks to counteract persistent campus-wide and global anti-blackness. The Black Cultural Center works to holistically enrich, educate, and advocate for students, faculty, and staff through Black centered programming, culturally affirming educational initiatives, and retention strategies.

This new center will enact this mission through intentional programmatic learning outcomes, envisioned to build a sense of belonging and community at the U, with the goal of increasing the recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty, and staff. Supporting academic and cultural activities, this center is designed to promote and explore Blackness, equity, justice, and other progressive social change initiatives on campus and within the larger African diasporic community. The broader public mission of the Center is marked by a commitment to community activism and collaboration.”

Ethnic centers should, like the University of Utah, be aiming to provide academic resources for underserved populations, and serve as educational resources for all students, rather than barring certain students from these spaces. Rather than ethnic spaces serving as a signal of belonging, as the research suggest, ethnic centers should aim to be mission-oriented and educationally-based for all students, and the local community.

How could ethnic spaces be inclusive to all students, while still promoting belonging for underrepresented populations? Potentially, the spaces could be educational in their focus, which would also align with the missions of universities. Such spaces could be thought of as museums of sorts, that celebrate human diversity, showcase student and faculty work in relevant areas, and motivate academic engagement within the center. The public could be charged a small admission fee (free for all university students and staff) to help support student organizations. Providing opportunity and incentive for student engagement would likely promote greater use of the centers, too.

Rather than having a separate student union-like buildings or spaces for particular groups, a potential solution could be a single ‘multicultural’ center on college campuses that could showcase and promote unity on campus, rather than exclusion. Such centers would be a place for all students to visit, learn, and engage with, and hold events, with the goal of promoting positive perceptions and belonging for all students on campus.

Research, such as this new study in SPPS, is necessary to evaluate the effects of such spaces on student outcomes. Because ethnic centers are themselves diverse across campuses, it would be useful to compare student perceptions and experiences based on key features of such centers that already exist. Do centers that have a clear educational mission like University of Utah promote a stronger sense of belonging than generic student union-like spaces like at Virginia Tech? Does a single multicultural center that celebrates all types of human diversity have positive effects for minority and White students?

Rather than being just “signals”, universities should strive to create ethnic centers that further educational goals, foster community belonging, and have positive effects on all students.

From Psychology PhD to EdTech Research Scientist: My Transition Out of the (Formal) Ivory Tower

The academic job market is notoriously competitive–PhDs in my field (psychology) often spend years on the job market for the chance to land a tenure-track position. When I was in the fifth and final year of my PhD, I knew it was highly unlikely that I would land a job as a professor, even with 30+ peer-reviewed publications. Knowing how slim chances were of actually landing an academic position in a city I wanted to live, I decided to branch out and pursue alternative academic careers (see my advice for PhDs on the altac job market here).

I’d love to sit here and write about how I had a well-defined career plan to enter a specific industry, develop my skillset, and land my dream job. But that didn’t happen for me–and rarely does for most, especially for PhDs like myself who entered their program with all the intentions of beating the odds and becoming “Professor X.” I will tell you, however, that I was open minded about my career options and confident in my abilities as a scientist, which I believe allowed me to land an awesome job in an industry that I knew very little about at the time.

This post was published at Beyond the Professoriate on April 9 2020. To continue reading, click here.

It’s Not You, It’s the Market

Peak interview season has passed and you’re starting to see all the “I’m excited to share that I’ll be joining the Psychology Department at University X this Fall” tweets on your feed. Although exciting for those that beat the odds and landed a coveted tenure-track position, the reality is that the majority of psychology PhDs will not be tweeting out an incoming faculty announcement anytime soon. Why? Because, as most of us are aware, the market is, well . . . fucked. Seriously, it’s not you, it’s the market.

The intuition that landing a tenure track faculty job comes down to mostly luck and how many tickets (applications) you buy is beginning to be backed by data. As interest in meta-science research has taken off in recent years, so too, has research and analysis into the academic job market. What is the best predictor of landing a job? Submitting a lot of applications. Really, that’s it. The more darts you throw at the board, the better your chances of hitting the bullseye.

During my early years as a graduate student, I knew it was normal to submit upwards of 100 applications, and maybe get a handful of interviews. I knew, also, that it was normal to spend several years adjuncting and post-docing on insufficient pay waiting to land a faculty role.

When I started graduate school, I was determined to beat the odds — and I worked. In my five years I published more than 30 peer-reviewed research articles (but 42 scholarly articles total), I gave more than 25 conference presentations, got elected to the board of a scientific society (as a student), reviewed 96 journal articles to date, taught nine university courses, and organized conferences and workshops. The result? One phone interview for a tenure-track position out of 17 applications.

I was disappointed of course, but not surprised. It was statistically unlikely that I would land a job coming from an R2 state school program, and even more unlikely given self-imposed geographical constraints. The data are against me, and that’s okay, but the state of the job market is, in my view, ridiculous. And now that people are analyzing job market data, the ridiculousness of the job market is becoming concrete rather than hear-say and anecdotes.

Below, are some job market data resources with some highlights I found particularly telling.


The 2018-2019 SPSP Job Market Survey

This is a phenomenal resource, and very telling about the state of the market. Huge kudos to Heidi A. Vuletich, Fernanda C. Andrade, Diego Guevara Beltran, and Hasagani Tissera for publishing these data.

The main take away from this survey is what does – and does not – predict success on the market. Overall, two primary predictors of tenure-track success emerged: Number of applications and journal impact factors. That’s it. The lottery perspective of the market has been confirmed, and it is still normal for search committees to judge a candidate’s merit on the number of JPSPs they have.

It’s also interesting to see how many publications candidates have. If you chat with professors that were on the market 20 years ago, you know it was unusual to have publications when on the market. Now? The average successful candidate at a research institution has 9 publications. Those at a teaching institution, an average of 6 publications. But, importantly, the number of publications did not differentiate those who did vs. did not land a job. Impact factors are still king.

That very few metrics of productivity predict psychology job market success coincides with other research in the life sciences that concludes, “Traditional benchmarks of a positive research track record above a certain threshold of qualifications were unable to completely differentiate applicants with and without offers.”


The 2017-2018 PsychJobSearchWIki analysis by Mark Thornton

This analysis is mostly descriptive, but nicely demonstrates how limited the market is. How many jobs are there? According to the jobwiki, which seems to be the most representative place on the internet for psychology faculty job postings, there were about 700 in 2017. Cool! Lots of jobs! But when you consider that each area has around 100 or fewer jobs, combined with the fact that thousands of PhDs in psychology are awarded each year, the limited nature of the market is readily apparent.

I am eagerly awaiting an analysis of the 2019-2020 market, which is likely to include new insights into the now standard diversity, equity, and inclusion statements for academic positions.


The 2015-2017 APA Job Advertisement Analysis

A bit older, but still useful, is the APA analysis of job advertisements. The key take-aways here are that there are still not many jobs, with clinical psychology having the highest showing. Many sub-areas of psychology, account for single-digit percentages of the psychology job market.

Also interesting is the distribution of jobs, which unsurprisingly follows the general population distribution in the US. Unless you live the New England area, it is likely that you’ll be moving if you plan to secure a job.


So, if you didn’t land a job this year, even if you did everything ‘right’, it’s more likely a result of the hyper-competitive market and not your skills as a researcher of educator. After weeding out incomplete applications and poor research fit, it is likely the case that there are 20 or 50 qualified applicants, and the decision of who to hire comes down to culture fit and committee preferences. Don’t let a fucked job market diminish your identity as a scholar and academic.

Are Replication Rates in Psychology Actually Better Than Expected? (Despite Them Still Being Terrible, Of Course)

I’ve been doing research into open science and the replication crisis in psychology recently for work (to make a case for open science practices in the education technology industry), and stumbled across this article on the replication crisis in psychology by Ulrich Schimmack. One particular part of the article caught my attention (highlighted in the image below).

The idea here, as I interpret it, is that if psychology studies are conducted at 80% power on average, then the replication rate in psychology should be around 80% — assuming everything is done correctly. The replication rate in psychology, however, is very clearly not at 80%. A quick summary of the major replication projects in psychology, such as the Open Science Collaboration and the Many Labs efforts, point to a replication rate closer to around 46%.

So, assuming standard study power of 80% we would then expect that 20% of studies wouldn’t replicate even if everything was done correctly in the replication studies. But over 50% of psychology studies fail to replicate and psychology studies aren’t powered at 80% — not even close. This comment in Ulrich’s article reminded me of a 2018 study published in Psychological Bulletin on the average power in psychology studies across sub-disciplines. The result? The average power in psychology studies is a whopping 36% (just shy of 80%, yea?), with social psychology – the main target of replication efforts – at just over 30%. Only around 20% of social psychology studies are adequately powered, according to this study.

What does this mean, then? Well, if the average power of psychology studies is only 36% then we would expect that on average about 64% of psychology studies wouldn’t replicate which is pretty close to the estimated 54% failed replications across the major replication effort projects. So, in a way the “shockingly” low replication rates are completely expected given the dismal power of psychology studies, on average.

But there is reason to suspect that the replication rate of around 46% is actually pretty darn high, all things considered. I was curious, so I conducted rigorous Twitter polls to see what the masses thought. Below, are the two polls. The first, was trying to get at what my biased twitter audience thought the replication rate would be assuming that all psychology studies have on average 80% power. The majority thought replication would be closest to around 50% — close the current rate. The second poll simply asked if the statement by Ulrich (highlighted in the opening paragraph of this post) was true or false. A close poll indicated that it was ‘true’, but many thought it was false.

Finally, once all the other methodological issues are considered (e.g., variation in the replication study, poor measurement, inaccurate effect sizes, etc), the expected replication rate – even with 80% average power, would likely be lower than 80%. All of this therefore leads me to the conclusion that given the dismal average power of psychology studies, in addition to other methodological problems (e.g., measurement problems), and research process biases (e.g., p-hacking, HARKing), the psychology replication rate of around 46% is way higher than what would be expected. Does this mean that it is good? Absolutely not.

Thoughts?

My Advice for PhD Students on the (altac) Job Market


Like many soon-to-be PhDs, I entered my doctoral program with all the hopes, dreams, and intentions of landing a tenure-track professor position after graduation. Like more soon-to-be PhDs, I actively pursued — and landed — a great ‘alternative’ job outside of the ivory tower. For those in the academy that know me personally, most were surprised at hearing of my decision to not sacrifice everything in order to become a professor. Most professors that I know told me that I would likely land a tenure-track job given my publication and presentation record, service to the field, and doing all the other things that I was ‘supposed’ to do in order to have a ‘strong’ application on the academic job market. But I chose to look elsewhere as I entered my 5th year of graduate school.

My decision to actively pursue altac jobs (alternative academic jobs, or non-professor jobs) was made in consideration of three primary factors: Living where I wanted to live (rather living where random University X was located), solving the two-body problem (rather than either one of us making a major career sacrifice), and the odds of having a job following graduation. Each of these factors pointed to the solution of being open minded and seriously exploring what the altac job market had to offer. Because aside from a massive dose of luck, I knew that it was extremely unlikely that I would land a tenure-track position coming out of a R2 state school PhD program given geographical constraints.

Graduate students, professors, and anyone with any connection to academia knows how outright dismal the tenure-track market is for those of use not coming out of an Ivy League or top-ranked R1 program. The fact of the matter is: There are not enough jobs. Each year, thousands of PhDs are awarded for only a few hundred tenure-track jobs per field worldwide. Then, it comes down to fit with the department, program, and university. There are many(ish) tenure track jobs in psychology, for example, but the majority are looking for someone who does research outside of my specific area.

To continue reading, click here.

This post originally appeared on my Medium account on 3 January 2020.