On Increased Accountability in Higher Education, Communication is Everywhere

From Kansas City to Washington, DC, at conferences about General Education, the Humanities, and the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Communication (as a discipline and as a practice) is simply everywhere.

  • How do we communicate the importance of General Education to students, parents, and colleagues?
  • How do we best communicate the value of social and behavioral sciences to policymakers who don’t appreciate the role of social science and who don’t support the continued federal funding of such research?
  • How do we best communicate how the humanities contribute to the “common good” to students and parents who believe the errant discourses about employability and college majors?

AAC&UIn its mid-February meeting on General Education and Assessment, the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) presented a series of challenging and provocative panels organized around the meeting’s theme: “From Mission to Action to Evidence: Empowering and Inclusive General Education Programs.” As should be evident from the theme, many of those panels involved meaningful discussion about how best to communicate to various audiences. At AAC&U, two levels of communication emerged.

On a disciplinary level, participants at the conference often engaged in careful discussion about how best to demonstrate the value of communication skills and knowledge as an important part of the General Education program. Increasingly, colleges and universities are discovering that students, parents, employers, and just about everyone else is recognizing the centrality of communication skills and knowledge for students’ professional, personal, and civic success. Often cited was AAC&U’s 2015 report “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success,” that recounted the results of AAC&U’s survey of employers and students alike. Communication skills and abilities were clearly the most important sets of learning outcomes for college graduates.

On a more practical level, scholars and administrators at the AAC&U meeting were also quite concerned about how best to communicate the importance and value of general education and assessment to their colleagues and administrators in an increasingly challenging political environment for higher education. So Danette Ifert Johnson, the immediate past president of the Eastern Communication Association and an associate provost at Ithaca College presented a discussion of “Making General Education Reform Stick: Using an Organizational Change Model to Guide Implementation” to a standing-room only crowd. Another Communication scholar, Lori J. Carrell, who is now the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Minnesota-Rochester offered a plenary session presentation highlighting the communication challenges facing General Education reform efforts—and received a standing ovation!

Communication, as both discipline and practice, was also on full display at the annual meeting and advocacy day for the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) and the National Humanities Alliance (NHA). On two successive weeks in March, these two groups convened scholars, administrators, and association officials in Washington to discuss how best to advocate for the humanities and social sciences.

COSSAAt COSSA, attendees heard from scientists who have been attacked in the news media and over social media channels by politicians and others who deem their research frivolous. From “shrimp on treadmills” to sociological explorations of the Chinese dairy industry, these scholars offered a bleak assessment of the media and political landscape even as they remained optimistic about the potential for social and behavioral scientists to respond successfully to such attacks.

NHAThe keynote address at NHA was presented by Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Ed, who highlighted the challenges confronting the humanities as these disciplines seek to preserve funding for humanities research and to enhance legitimacy and viability on college campuses and in society at large. Jaschik’s comments highlighted the emerging sense among humanities scholars everywhere of the imminent importance of effectively communicating the value and place of the humanities in promoting what NEH chairman Bro Adams has called “the common good.”

Even the physical and biomedical sciences are coming to see the value and importance of Communication: NCA just received an invitation to the National Research Council’s 2015 Harry and Byrna David Lecture, featuring none other than Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Her title: “Communicating the Value and Values of Science.”

Whether as a discipline or as a practice, Communication is everywhere.

It’s Budget Season, Again…and NCA’s on the Hill, Again!

Obama BudgetIf it’s springtime, it must be budget season in DC. And with budget season come new (re-newed) attacks on research funding, peer review, and the value of the social sciences. Right now, the fight is over HR 4660, the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Appropriations Bill. As this legislation has worked its way through markup and  committee, on its way to the House floor, several disturbing provisions of the legislation have emerged.

First and foremost are various attempts to slash funding for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) of the National Science Foundation. Some amendments have zeroed out funding for SBE entirely while other provisions have sought dramatic cuts to the Directorate’s funding. Concerns about SBE  were crystallized by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) on the House floor in a speech delivered on May 28th. Cantor praised the efforts to “reform” NSF by reducing funding for SBE, so as to “eliminate wasteful spending and prioritize research that has the potential of truly benefiting our Nation.” Here’s the entire May 28th House floor debate on HR 4660.

Rep. Cantor’s remarks were challenged by the ranking member on the CJS committee, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), who defended NSF’s processes of merit-based peer review. In his floor remarks, Rep. Fattah argued that NSF’s peer-review processes are world-class:

“All of our competitors are actually trying to mimic the merit-based selection process that the National Science Foundation utilizes, and it is critically important that the National Science Board, in the ways that these decisions are made, is not going to be influenced by politics.  That was in the wisdom of the creation of this, and it has worked so well that we now lead the world. If we want to continue to lead the world, the last thing we want to do is to interject politics into the decision-making process of what basic scientific research should be supported.”

Update: Another defense of SBE funding at NSF was provided by Rep. David Price (D-NC), a longtime champion of research funding for both the social sciences and the humanities. Many of the projects he highlights in this speech relate to Communication either directly or indirectly.

NCA–Back on the Hill

Partly in response to the lingering, ongoing attacks to SBE funding, and to the peer review processes at NSF more generally, NCA joined with approximately fifty other organizations, learned societies, and universities to host and participate in the 20th Annual Capitol Hill Exhibition, sponsored by the Coalition for National Science Funding. On a Wednesday afternoon, representatives from the CNSF organizations came to the Rayburn House Office Building to display their projects–all funded by NSF and all making a compelling argument for the value of sustained, peer-reviewed research funding.

NCA members John Gastil (Penn State University) and Katie Knobloch (Colorado State University) came to DC to discuss their project entitled “The Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR), 2010-2014: Evaluation and Analysis of an Electoral Innovation,” principally funded by an NSF grant from the SBE Directorate. Their poster is below and is available here as a PDF.

CNSF Exhibition Poster-Gastil and Knobloch

Gastil and Knobloch discussed their project with numerous attendees at the Exhibition, including NSF officials, liaisons with other funding agencies and universities, Capitol Hill staffers, and Members of Congress. Notably, Representatives Fattah (below, with Knobloch and Gastil) and Jerry McNerney (D-CA) spent considerable time at the NCA exhibit, learning about the role of social science in bettering democratic deliberation and citizen engagement.


As a member of the Coalition for National Science Funding, NCA regularly participates in CNSF activities and has for the last two years brought NSF funded Communication scholars to DC for the Capitol Hill Briefing and Exhibition. Attending the event, along with Gastil and Knobloch, were NCA Executive Director Nancy Kidd (below with Knobloch and Gastil), NCA Director of Academic & Professional Affairs Trevor Parry-Giles, and Academic & Professional Affairs Associate Megan Moore.


The State of Doctoral Education in Communication

If it’s autumn, it’s time to talk about the state of doctoral education in Communication.

Graduate in gownsNew cohorts of graduate students are beginning their programs of study in graduate programs across the country. Prospective graduate students are looking at programs, talking to advisers and mentors, and figuring out what’s the best plan for their future. More and more students are pondering a future in graduate school–even in the arts and humanities, where enrollment in doctoral programs in 2012 increased by 7.7%. Faculty members and administrators are determining hiring plans and assessing the state of individual doctoral programs in their yearly process of self-study and internal assessment. In short, it’s a good time to think about doctoral education in Communication.

NCA examines and provides information about doctoral education in Communication via its Doctoral Education Committee (DEC). These dedicated volunteers work to enhance NCA programming that promotes doctoral education in Communication, including oversight of the annual NCA Doctoral Honors Seminar and the Miller Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award. At the DEC’s urging, NCA has prepared the Doctoral Program Guide that provides information about 76 doctoral programs in Communication. Along with the program information, the Guide also includes NCA’s latest report, “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication.”

Among the most frequently asked questions we receive at NCA concerns the 2004 NCA Reputational Study that ranked doctoral programs in several research specialties and along three different criteria. We are often asked if we’re going to replicate the study or offer another ranking system for doctoral education. All of these requests prompted serious thought and discussion in the National Office and among the DEC. We also researched the historical and current attempts to rank or rate doctoral programs, particularly in Communication, and the “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication” report is the result of that research.

DPG ImageInstead of sponsoring or conducting another reputational study, DEC and the NCA staff decided a better approach would be to provide current and relevant information about doctoral education in Communication. Hence, the Doctoral Program Guide. There are many concerns with both of the main methods for ranking/rating doctoral programs–reputational studies and productivity studies. Reputational studies are inherently difficult to conceptualize and execute. Response rates to such studies are often low and the measurement instruments can be complicated and onerous for the respondent. Who is sampled for reputational analyses and what factors contribute to a program’s reputation are persistent issues for reputational studies. Timeliness is also a concern, as program reputations change quickly, faculty members change affiliations, and program offerings vary from time to time.

Productivity studies of research output are also complicated. What research is counted, what databases are used, what citations are measured—these are all issues that such studies must grapple with as they proceed to assess doctoral program quality. On a related note, because Communication is a multi-methodological, pluralistic discipline, its scholars conduct and disseminate their research differently and those differences may well involve publication patterns and frequencies as well as citation practices.

In the end, as we say in the “Assessing Doctoral Program Quality in Communication” report, “Consumers of rankings and ratings of doctoral programs in Communication would be well-advised to consider such limitations and to adapt their expectations about such quality measures accordingly. Whether prospective or current graduate students, faculty members or unit administrators, anyone who attends to assessments of doctoral programs in Communication, or any discipline, should seek out and consult as much information as possible, recognizing that no single assessment or measurement of graduate program quality is definitive and that, in the case of doctoral program quality, more information and more data is better than less.”

Breaking Bad News about Financial Aid–Sharing COMM Knowledge

Blog ShotNCA Associate Director for Academic & Professional Affairs Brad Mello recently contributed to the blog of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. The post discussed how knowledge and insight from Communication scholarship can assist financial aid professionals in their dealings with students and families, particularly when they have to break bad news.

Drawing upon his own experiences as a graduate student confronting a financial aid crisis, Mello discusses the research by Villagren and her colleagues in social support communication to offer advice on key strategies for breaking bad news. As Mello concludes “Breaking bad news is never easy, and the outcomes are not always positive, but good communicators can improve the experience by following the COMFORT model.”

Read the post here.

What’s a COMM Major Worth?

What do Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren, Henry Ford, and Harry Truman have in common?

The answer might not be obvious at first glance–they are all highly successful individuals who did not earn a college degree. And they are the bane of college and university educators as the examples always used by legislators, students, parents, and anyone else trying to argue for the declining value of a college education.

Dollars fly conceptAs tuition and other college costs rise for students and parents nationwide in all sectors of higher education, and with all the renewed public attention to the pressing issues of rising student debt and the dynamics of America’s student loan system, it makes sense to ask seriously about the value of a college education. And it also makes sense to drill down on that question to really explore which majors or college plans of study are better than others.

For those of us who study and teach in the communication arts and sciences, then, an operative question of the moment is What’s a COMM major worth?

Some answers to this question are found in a new report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute. Entitled Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings, the report draws on data from the American Community Survey and from the Census Bureau to offer a comparative snapshot about unemployment and earning power based on specific college majors. For Communication (identified in the report as Communications & Journalism), the findings are quite interesting.

  • COMM is not among the majors with either the lowest or the highest levels of unemployment. The major with the lowest unemployment rates is Nursing, at 4.8%. while students majoring in Information Systems face the highest level of unemployment at 14.7%.
  • For COMM, the unemployment rates are 7.8% for recent college graduates, 6.0% for experienJob Graduateced college graduates, and 4.2% for graduate degree holders. Recent college graduates in the Humanities and Liberal Arts face a 9.0% unemployment rate while those in Psychology & Social Work are looking at an 8.8% rate, and those in Social Science are facing a 10.3% unemployment rate.
  • COMM majors who are recent college graduates command median earnings of about $33,000. This is higher than Humanities and Liberal Arts majors ($30K) and equal to Law and Public Policy majors ($33K), but lower than Engineering majors ($54K) and Business majors ($39K). Graduate degree holders in COMM have median earnings of $64,000, ahead of majors in the Arts, Education, Recreation, and Psychology & Social Work.
  • Among the COMM sub-fields identified in the report, Mass Media majors face the dimmest prospects, with an employment rate for recent college graduates at 8.9% and median earnings of just $31,000. The report counts Family & Consumer Sciences majors in the COMM group, and these graduates fare best in unemployment rates (6.4%), but less successfully in terms of median earnings ($30K)

PathwaysFor years, NCA and Communication educators have worked to convince students and parents that a COMM major is worth it–that the degree will be beneficial for students both in terms of liberal arts learning and in practical preparation for the challenging job market. Whether it’s via Pathways, the NCA guide to careers in Communication, or the ubiquitous poster in COMM departments nationwide that asks students “What Can You Do with a Communication Degree?,” we’ve spent considerable time and effort as educators convincing students, administrators, legislators, and parents that our degree matters, that it sufficiently prepares young people to pursue successful careers and to build fruitful lives.

Georgetown’s report on college majors and earning potential is good news for COMM educators and COMM majors. It demonstrates, with compelling data, that a COMM major is worth much, and is good preparation for young people who confront a difficult and daunting employment marketplace.

NCA On the Hill

NCA On the HillApril and May in Washington bring several things–cherry blossoms, intensified talk of budgets, tourists on the National Mall, and an endless stream of Congressional briefings and presentations.

In this time of shrinking budgets for research funding, researchers and funding agencies and the organizations that represent them are headed to Capitol Hill. All of these briefings and presentations occur in the context of renewed efforts by some in Congress to restrict, limit, or eliminate outright funding for research by the federal government. In particular, Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has questioned the value of NSF’s peer review process, proposing new criteria for the awarding of NSF research funding.

Joining these Capitol Hill briefings and presentations are scholars from NCA, demonstrating the importance and value of communication research and disseminating that scholarship to larger and broader audiences.

Congressional Briefing 4_25_2013 021On April 25, 2013, the Coalition for National Science Funding, working with the House Research & Development Caucus, sponsored a Capitol Hill briefing on “Social Science Research on Disasters.” The event specifically focused on communication, resilience, and consequences of disaster preparedness and the research that studies disaster related issues. One of the three featured researchers at this briefing was H. Dan O’Hair, Dean of the College of Communication at the University of Kentucky and NCA’s 92nd president, who discussed “Message Strategy Research and Extreme Events.” O’Hair discussed the findings of his NSF supported research project that addressed the question “How do extreme events, media, and message strategies interact to affect human decision making?,” considering specifically the role of messages and media in the context of hurricane forecasting and warning systems. O’Hair’s presentation slides are posted and available here.

CNSF Exhibit 5_7_13 025On May 7, 2013, the Coalition for National Science Funding hosted a Capitol Hill Exhibition for scores of researchers to display the results of their NSF funded research projects. NCA member Brian Spitzberg from San Diego State University journeyed to Washington to present a poster of his research project examining the question “Can cyberspace map onto human activities occurring in (geographic) real space?” (see below-click on the image to enlarge). Spitzberg discussed his research with congressional staffers, researchers from across the nation, as well as Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL, 11), Cora Marrett, the acting director of NSF (with Spitzberg, right), and Philip Rubin from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

NSF-NCA-A Poster 1

A New Ranking?

It’s been a week now since President Obama promised, in his State of the Union address, to release a “College Scorecard,” that would “compare schools based on a simple criteria — where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” And, as promised, the scorecard is now available on the White House website.

Obama SOTU

President Obama working on the State of the Union address with speechwriters. Photo courtesy of http://www.whitehouse.gov

This new device is really very simple–it includes a measurement of what the typical student will pay at a selected college or university after grants and scholarships. It also offers the college or university’s graduation rate, loan default rate, and median borrowing per month for an undergraduate degree. So when I looked up my B.A. alma mater (Ripon College), I discovered that it now costs $19,475/year, that 70.1% of students graduate from Ripon (ranking it in the “high” category), that the loan default rate for Ripon graduates is 3.1% (compared to 13.4% nationally), and that the average per month borrowing rate to attend Ripon is $260.37.

The “College Scorecard” also lets parents and students search for particular majors, locations, sizes…just about any relevant criteria that they might use in selecting the right college or university.

What is the consequence of this new development in higher education? Is this just another feeble attempt to keep college costs down? Or the beginning of a new effort to nationalize higher education? Also of interest are new metrics emerging all the time about the success or failure of particular majors and career trajectories for today’s young people. Yahoo’s education section recently ran an article about “Degrees Employers Hate and Love,” and the second most “loved” degree among employers was Communication.

In short, rankings are changing–U.S. News and World Report is dropping schools out of their ranking scheme for faking data and new ratings systems are emerging daily. And the criteria for why and how college and universities are ranked as they are continue to fluctuate–affordability, default rates, quality of faculty, graduation rates, GPAs for entering first-year students.

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