Discussions of higher education policy must address differences between disciplines

A number of years ago, a young woman who was in the fall semester of her third year as an undergraduate physics major decided to change her plan from attending graduate school in physics and pursuing a career in scientific research to working in science policy, starting with a graduate program in that field.  So she figured out how complete a second major in political science in three semesters while also finishing up her upper division physics coursework.  She blew through the political science courses with excellent grades and completed an Honors Thesis in science policy while also successfully dealing with the challenges of the third and fourth year physics courses.  She was admitted to a first-rate graduate program in science policy and – last I heard – was employed in that field.

I was reflecting on this student’s experience after listening to and talking with several experts in higher education policy this week.  Perhaps I missed it, but in their comments about higher education none of these experts acknowledged how different the demands on students are in different areas of study.  The young woman who ended up in science policy had probably become interested in science as a middle schooler.  She took algebra in middle school and had followed through with more algebra, geometry, precalculus and calculus in high school.  Her final decision to major in physics in college was inspired by the woman who was her high school physics teacher – someone I met later who was personable and who obviously built deep relationships with her students.  In middle and high school, this student developed the characteristics and discipline necessary for anyone to succeed in college, as well as the “college-ready” basic skills like reading comprehension and writing proficiency (in addition to the college-ready algebra level she achieved early in her high school career).  But on top of that, this aspiring physics major had to master advanced math and science skills that relatively few college-bound high school students bother with.

For this student, the bachelor’s degree in physics came as the result of a ten- or eleven-year program of concentrated effort in math and science courses and healthy doses of inspiration and mentoring from a few dozen gifted instructors.

Her successful and rapid run through the political science program was an afterthought.

After the higher education forum I attended this week, three statements made by higher ed experts that ignored the very different demands on students in different college majors stuck with me.

One was this:  Students should be able – and perhaps encouraged – to pursue their higher education a few years at a time instead of running straight through in four years (for a bachelor’s degree) or more (for a graduate degree).  This probably works fine in studio art (an area of study with which I have more than a little familiarity).  But it doesn’t work fine in engineering or the physical sciences, two sets of college majors which are “vertical” in the sense that math and science skills build in long sequences of prerequisites.  If you walk away from math for a year, it’s a tremendous challenge to rebuild your math fitness.  Some students who try to do it don’t succeed.  Take a gap year after high school, then a five-year hiatus two years into your undergraduate program?  I really don’t advise it.

How about this one?  The higher education problems of white students have been solved.  We should now be totally focused on the issue of African-American and Hispanic students.  I’ll agree this far – we should be focused on the issue of the success of African-American and Hispanic students.  In fact, the underrepresentation of students from these groups is particularly severe in engineering and physical sciences.  And since many of the economic leaders of the 21st century will come from these fields, it is crucially important that the underrepresentation of students from these groups be addressed in a significant way.

But to stop at this racial boundary would be to deny another enormous disparity in computer science, engineering and physical sciences – the shortage of women in these fields.  Only about 20% of the bachelors’ degrees in these fields – both in Florida and nationally – are awarded to women.  That’s a shortage of white women as well as minority women.  Women like the student who steered into a science policy degree after earning a bachelor’s degree with a double major in physics and political science.  Drawing a circle around racial achievement gaps in higher education and declaring that to be the only important issue in higher education is shortsighted and, well, ignorant (and maybe willfully so).

Finally, try this claim on for size:  If we would only stop pursuing the magic of prestige in higher education, we could cap the cost of a bachelor’s degree and the crisis in college and university finances would be solved.  That might be true in sociology, economics or political science – the fields in which most analysts who come up with these pronouncements were trained.  But it’s not even close to true in computer science, engineering or the physical sciences – careers we are trying to make accessible to the entire top quartile or top third of students through the use of research-based pedagogies and technological tools (to say nothing of the pricey equipment that they will use in their careers and on which they need to cut their teeth during their undergraduate years).  Effective education in computer science, engineering and the physical sciences costs money.  If we want more students to enter these fields, that will cost more money.

If we as a society are serious about dramatically expanding opportunities in the leadership fields of the 21st century – computer science, engineering and the physical sciences – then we must stop pretending that all higher education is the same.  Instead, we have to confront the challenges of these fields and make the investments necessary for more students from all backgrounds to succeed in them.

And perhaps the higher ed gurus should talk with those of us trying to do the work of educating these future technological leaders.  They might learn something.

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