Lifting up the N of 1

I could barely manage to get out of bed this morning. I had lain awake thinking about recent surveys and polls about the waning confidence in higher education among some specific groups and possibly the public at large.

I remember in the mid-1990s when the discussions with heads of higher education associations were upbeat because there was so much public support for higher education. In these meetings, we viewed the positive public opinion about colleges and universities as leverage to use to persuade Congress and the Administration to increase funding levels for financial aid. In fact, there was a groundswell of support for the government to do more to help middle class families, in particular, afford to send their students to college. New technology companies demonstrated support by appealing to congressional leaders. Some even declared that making college more affordable was an issue of national defense.

Various reasons have been suggested as to why the people surveyed have negative opinions about colleges and universities. There is no question that college costs have put a college degree out of reach for some families. However, even at the same time that we were surfing on a tide of support for higher education in the mid-1990s, cost containment and the impact on tuition was a major topic of concern. Yet, there was still the belief that a college education was of critical importance and an American value. It is concerning that those of us who see the merits of higher education may be unable to have our voices heard above the din of naysayers.

I tossed and turned most of the night because I do not want to accept as fact that the gulf between those who demean higher education and those who value it may be unbridgeable at this time. So I searched for the common denominator for all who think about education, whether positively or negatively. That common denominator is the impact college has on students who attend.

Rather than relying on survey results of groups outside of college, students should be asked questions about what they think about their college experience. As I thought about surveying students, I reminded myself that the term “students” represents an exceptionally varied and diverse group, and looking at data from them in the aggregate may not be precise enough to be used to take any action. Then, I thought about disaggregating the data gleaned from surveys of students. How the data is disaggregated can also be an issue in interpreting the results. What to do?


As my thoughts swirled during my restless night about polls, surveys, aggregated and disaggregated data, I recalled the denigration of the “anecdote” as evidence of anything as we search for accountability. I thought about how any research to be credible needed a large sample. Then I remembered a single student that I spoke with recently. I began to relax as I thought about my conversation with the student and the potential beauty of the N of 1.

The student I spoke with was struggling with a decision about whether or not to return to college in the fall. Having already made the financial commitment and selected courses, the student was twisted into a knot, virtually paralyzed because of how consequential the decision was about whether going to college was the best route to reach the desired goal.

Notwithstanding the financial obligations of borrowing money – during the first year and the debt that will be accumulated in subsequent years – the student just did not see the connection between a college education and reaching the dream. The student had many entries on a list of “cons” about not going to college, and only one on the list for “pros,” and that was that family expected that everyone who had an opportunity to go to college should go. Among the “cons” the student listed negative press about the costs of college, friends and acquaintances who had not attained the jobs they hoped for upon graduation, role models in the high-tech industry who never went to college or did not complete college, and the time and effort to complete the degree. I could understand the student’s dilemma. Making a step in any direction at this point in the process would make the student unhappy or the family unhappy.

Listening to the student and viewing the current context through the student’s lens; encouraging the student to share the desired dream; sharing relevant parts of my journey through higher education; helping the student envision multiple future scenarios with and without a college degree; sharing ideas about the joy of discovering knowledge that goes beyond training to do a specific kind of work; and sharing examples of how a college education could increase one’s competitive edge filled our time together. I told the student that a college education is a ticket to ride, and there are no limits to where a college graduate could travel.

Whether or not the student returns to college in the fall, I believe that our conversation could help unravel the knot that may be holding back a talented student from a bright future. We need not feel impotent in the midst of the swirling smoke of negativity about the value of higher education when we can give time to a student in need one at a time if necessary. Polls, surveys, data disaggregated. Collect the anecdotes and lift up the N of 1.






2 responses to “Lifting up the N of 1

  1. Thanks for this today!

  2. gkreahlingmckay

    Gwen, thank you so much for this post. I have a new role at my college, which is academic mentor to the football team, and these students are facing so many problems and issues in their lives. I must say, thinking of the N of 1 is important. Because each student – each N – is important. Thanks for reminding me of this. I am writing about my adventures with the team and with active learning for the classroom at my own blog if you are interested:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s