UCI gets $1.1-million grant to pilot study on value of a liberal arts education


UC Irvine has been awarded a $1.1-million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to pilot a study that will analyze the value of a liberal arts education and how colleges measure student success.

The data-intensive study, headed by Richard Arum, dean of UCI’s School of Education, will be used for the foundation’s proposed national study of universities, managed by a consortium at the University of Michigan.

“In higher education we often teach people to [participate in] data-driven decision-making,” Arum said. “But we’re the last industry in the country to adopt it in our own work. This project is about trying to improve measurements in higher education.”


The study, called the Next-Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project, will collect and analyze data on a random sample of 1,050 UCI students: 500 incoming freshmen, 250 incoming junior transfers, 250 continuing juniors and 50 freshmen in the honors program. Researchers will sift through various kinds of student information, such as social background and course performance, combined with survey responses from learning-management systems such as Canvas and Blackboard, which aid the administration, reporting and delivery of educational courses or training programs.

Arum and Michael Dennin, vice provost for teaching and learning at UCI and dean of the division of undergraduate education, hope to track patterns of undergraduates’ success.

“We have an undergraduate program that’s deeply committed to improving student learning and instruction and adopting evidence-based approaches to doing it,” Arum said.

In the Next-Generation project’s initial planning stage, Arum’s team will draw on expertise from about 20 institutions, including Michigan, Columbia, Harvard and Stanford universities, to “identify the feasibility and utility” of the data.

“In a society hungry for data and evidence, simply claiming these values of the liberal arts no longer suffices,” said Mariët Westermann, the Mellon Foundation’s executive vice president for programs and research. “Developing thoughtful and robust models and measures of the economic, social and personal outcomes of a liberal arts education will greatly help all of us understand better what the worth of such an education is and communicate that value to academic decision-makers and the public.”

Arum joined UCI 2½ years ago after 16 years at New York University, where he was a professor of sociology and education before entering administration. He has directed education research studies for the Social Science Research Council and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Berkeley and a masters of education from Harvard.

“I decided [early] that education was going to be my life’s calling,” Arum said. “There’s nothing more important to shaping the lives of people than education.

“Now I really feel like we’re at the forefront of moving social science forward and moving education forward. … We have an incredible power to create new knowledge, inform public discourse and help improve institutional practices.”

The Next-Generation project, which emerged from the Mellon Foundation’s Value of the Liberal Arts initiative, “builds on our commitment to providing access to a world-class education to all qualified students, regardless of their background,” said Enrique Lavernia, UCI provost and executive vice chancellor. “UCI can serve as a national model for measurement and delivery of undergraduate education and improving student success.”

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