x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 August 2017

The economics of succeeding at university

What can be done to tackle the problem of underperforming and failing students?

Ensuring more students become graduate is vital. Christopher Pike / The National
Ensuring more students become graduate is vital. Christopher Pike / The National

Every year, over 100,000 people are enrolled in universities in the UAE, reflecting its growing commitment to education.

Yet enrolling in university is no guarantee of graduation, or of the acquisition of skills that aid success in the post-university phase. Every year, in universities across the entire world, a minority of students struggle, leading some to drop out of higher education without securing a qualification. What causes students to fail?

More importantly, from the perspective of countries such as the UAE that are seeking to elevate the capabilities of their citizen workforces as part of a transition to a knowledge economy, what can be done to tackle the problem of underperforming and failing students?

In a recently circulated paper entitled “What sets college thrivers and divers apart? A contrast in study habits, attitudes, and mental health”, Graham Beattie (University of Pittsburgh, US), Catherine Michaud-Leclerc, Jean-William Laliberte, and Philip Oreopoulos (all from the University of Toronto, Canada) investigate this very issue. Although the data are based on enrolments in the University of Toronto, the findings are still likely to be relevant for many other countries, including the UAE, where satellite institutions such as New York University at Abu Dhabi contribute to an educational environment that closely matches that found in the North America.

To illustrate the problem, the authors begin by citing figures from the University of Toronto. The average high school grade for those accepted into the university is 86 per cent, with a standard deviation of only 3 per cent, indicating very little variation around the average. However, by the end of the first semester - a very early stage in the students’ education - a great diversion appears in the grades, with around a third of the students scoring 60 per cent or less, and a standard deviation multiple times the magnitude of the corresponding figure for high school grades.

This marks the beginning of a trend that results in one quarter of students in Canada failing to complete their degrees within five years. The figures in the US are even more startling, where the post-secondary completion rate is less than 60 per cent.

The authors dig deeper into what factors are associated with a student’s performance. Their starkest finding is the presence of a strong statistical relationship between poor performance and poor time management, lack of study hours, and the tendency to cram for exams. The authors also noted that while poor performers were aware of their problems, they did not demonstrate knowledge of a way of effectively tackling them.

The survey responses of high performers illustrated this divide, as their successful utilisation of the available resources was a recurring theme. In particular, top students were much more likely to use the free resources made available on campus and, more importantly, they much more frequently took the opportunity to meet with instructors and the complimentary tutors provided by the university’s administration. In contrast, the low performers were much more likely to use private tutors - a potentially low-productivity investment of their resources in light of the free tutoring and instructor office hours that were available.

For the post-Second World War era, in all countries including the UAE, college degrees have been strongly associated with higher labour market earnings, and economists agree that a well-structured higher-education system is a critical component of a modern, vibrant economy. Moreover, the importance of the sort of skills that universities can potentially provide has grown as technology has improved, especially those relating to analytical and critical thinking, as well as creativity, as these are the abilities that robots and automated systems are yet to reproduce at a high level.

Therefore, Emirati authorities can potentially benefit from studying the results of the University of Toronto survey, as they seek to ensure that those enrolled in college realise their maximum potential. What are the key lessons to be learned?

First, the research paper points to a claim advanced by labor market experts for some time, which is that soft skills - such as diligence and an ability to delay gratification - matter. Employers seek graduates with high grades not just because “A”s indicate intellectual aptitude, but also because they signal a prospective employee’s ability to organise their time, conform to course instructions, and correctly anticipate the amount of effort necessary for success - key ingredients for a productive worker.

Second, combining the results of this paper with that of other pieces of labour market research, students can improve their soft skills. While the mutability of hard skills such as IQ and natural athleticism past adolescence remains an area of significant controversy, scientists are much more optimistic about our ability to improve an individual’s soft skills, including time management and commitment. The University of Toronto survey suggests that such investments are likely to yield significant returns in higher education, and therefore potentially in the labour market, too.

Canada is not the UAE, however, suggesting that a key takeaway for UAE policymakers should be the value of replicating the study conducted by Beattie and his colleagues, but in the context of the UAE higher education system.

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