Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Assumptions, damn lies and statistics

So in my morning perusal of higher ed blogs and notes, I came across this post on the Innovations blog on the Chronicle of Higher Ed website.

And I've thinking about how quickly a "common sense" assumption can lead to "everybody knows this" when it's just not true at all.

Because when I read this headline, "fewer Low-income students going to college" I thought, well, sure, I handle financial aid issues for the performing arts students at the University I work for, and the low income students are always having trouble.  That leads to, thinking about the conversations I have every April and May with students and families who have limited resources, and who are asking my school (and me, since I'm on that front line) for more resources to help them achieve their dreams, and I have to say "you can't afford to come here".

Then I think about how nice it would be if money wasn't a factor for these students and we could have a school that educates artists without saddling them with debt so that they could go be artists.

Except that I didn't have any debt from undergrad (thanks Mom and Dad!) and I didn't go be an artist, well not at first. and not ultimately.

But back to the wrong assumption-  The article is actually about a report that hones in on this point: "that among those who had taken Algebra II, the proportion of low- and moderate-income students enrolling in four-year colleges immediately after high school was much lower in 2004 than in 1992."

So the population we're studying is those that took Algebra II, what about those that didn't take Algebra II?  Perhaps those students attended colleges that didn't require Algebra II (I've worked for them, the performing arts doesn't require math for many majors, I haven't taken a formal math class since high school, and statistics was so much more fun than math).  Then there's the other qualifier- enrolling in 4 year colleges immediately after high school.  They could have attended a community college, or taken a year off.  Or they didn't actually go to college, but it's pretty impossible to tell based on this report and it SURE isn't possible to tell this based on the misleading headline.

How does this relate to higher ed arts?  Well, we assume that we're preparing students to be artists, but we've prepared them to do what? Be an entrepreneur whose field is the arts? Be an an orchestral musician? Be a piano soloist superstar? Be on stage at the Lyric Opera? Be an educated member of society? 

Because "everybody knows that we're preparing students to be artists" at the college where I work, but are we really?  How do we on the inside of academia know what it's like outside of academia when we've never been anywhere else?  I used to think my time in the private sector was a huge mistake as it took me off the path to getting ahead in my academic career, now, I'm not so sure.

Perhaps all we can assume is that we're teaching them about their art, but are we preparing them to think on their own enough to handle whatever curveballs come their way?  Because if my life had gone the way I thought it would during my college years, I would be the contrabassoonist of the Chicago Symphony, and I would be flying a jet car to Symphony Center for rehearsal.

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