Barriers to Involvement

“The great and sad part of UM is the wealth of talented individuals who go here– makes it hard for me, a moderately talented individual in a number of fields, to try out for a play or musical group and actually make it because I’m competing with, for example, percussion majors for Groove and theatre majors for a part in a play.”

—UM student


Survey Question

“What do you see as the barriers preventing you from being involved in the arts at the University of Michigan (if you experienced any)?”

We asked this question about barriers as a way to better understand — from a student’s perspective — what might keep them from engaging in the arts in college - either in general or to the degree to which they would have preferred. The question was open-ended so as not to presume to know how students would articulate the barriers. The expectation was that we would not to get a comprehensive laundry list of obstacles, just the ones that are most important to them.

Barriers to Involvement

  • Personal Capacity, Priorities, and Preferences

  • Competition & Selectivity within Majors and Clubs

  • Access: Time, Timing, Location, Cost, and Major

  • Personal Interest, Confidence, and/or Familiarity

  • Course Availability for Non-Majors

  • Distance and Location

  • Awareness, Marketing, and Communication

General Implications

  • Familiarity, comfort and interest drive engagement to overcome barriers.

  • For some, the barriers are seemingly straightforward. For others, there are multiple challenges.

  • Structural barriers imposed by disciplines, major, culture, and location are real and unevenly experienced.

  • Interest in the arts and students’ experiences of barriers may be moderated by their environments and prior exposure to the arts.

Summary of Topic Analysis Results

We estimated a topic model using 3857 open-ended responses, resulting in a 537 word dictionary (after removing stop words) and a model with 24 topics. The resulting topics are interpreted and described in the accompanying section on Topic Descriptions, and the responses reflect two major topic branches: University Context and Priorities and Tradeoffs. University Context responses are those that have a direct link to the environment at the University of Michigan, a large, highly selective 4-year college. Under Social Climate, students reported Apprehension over whether their ability or experience was sufficient to gain access to student arts groups or organizations, or whether the Exclusiveness of the audition process, the large U-M student talent pool, or the closed social groupings of student in the arts would conspire to keep them from a successful entry into organized and high level arts participation through primarily student organizations. There were also a number of barriers related to overall the University Structure, in both their academic programs (access and availability of courses they could take in the arts) and the lack of priority that was placed on the arts. Finally, U-M’s large decentralized campus environment made finding and accessing Publicity very difficult, frustrating students who felt it was a barrier that caused them to miss out on arts opportunities.

The Priorities and Tradeoffs node is fairly self explanatory, with Academic Priorities and Time being major (and likely expected) reported topic areas. The less reported Logistics node encompassed several more tangible barriers, such as Distance Between Campuses (time, convenience, transportation), Cost, and the Friend/Cost Ecosystem that describes not having peers with whom they can engage in arts events, so the Cost barrier, however that might be otherwise defined, was not overcome with an expected social outcome.

Students also described they were just Not Engaged around the arts, primarily due to Lack of Personal Interest or a sense of Ennui. There were also those who reported No Barriers, although often with the caveat that upon reflection they could report or imagine some potential barriers (No Barriers, Except).

Barriers Topic Tree


Fig. 1 Tree visualization of the Barriers topic model representing 3857 students responses. The responses reflect two major topic branches: University Context and Priorities and Tradeoffs, encompassing both curricular and co-curricular challenges. Go here for the interactive Barriers Topic Tree.

Summary of Principal Components Analysis Results

Five dimensions accounted for a cumulative 51% of the variation among the responses (n=3852) around the ‘barriers’ question. The five dimensions were extracted for further description and analysis, and each dimension is characterized by distributions of responses that illustrate different themes that may sometimes in tension with each other. Each of these dimensions is described in more detail in the dimensions section.

Dimension 1:

Personal Capacity -vs- Climate of Exclusion

Dimension 2:

Clear Barriers: Time, Location, Money, Major -vs- Other Interests

Dimension 3:

Dialectical Complexity (more -vs- less)

Dimension 4:

Lack of Personal Interest, Confidence, and/or Familiarity -vs- Distance + Awareness

Dimension 5:

Course Availability -vs- Access: Location and Awareness

Summary of Demographic Contrasts Results

The analysis revealed associations between demographic factor level contrasts for Dimensions 1, 2, 4, and 5. Dimension 3 (Dialectical Complexity) did not reveal any association with any of the demographic factors included in the analysis. There were school and income differences for Dimension 1. Differences for sex emerged for Dimensions 2, 4, and 5. Prior exposure to the arts was particularly relevant for Dimensions 2 and 4. Demographic factors that had associations with each of the dimensions are described in more detail in the demographics section.