Topic Descriptions

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 detailed methods for estimating the model can be found in the section on Topic Modeling and Interpretation.

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).

Click here for an interactive tree viewer for the ‘barriers’ topics.

ABOVE: Tree visualization of the Barriers topic model representing 3857 students responses.

University Context

Under the major topic node of University Context, students reflected on their lack of confidence in their talent, knowledge, experience or technical abilities in the arts, which they believed would render them unable to participate in often highly competitive opportunities at U-M. They also spoke to the difficulties in fitting demanding arts courses into their determined or inflexible schedules, the high bar of excellence required for entry into arts groups or programs, and the lack of emphasis the University puts on arts participation through its liberal arts requirements (i.e Creative Expression curricular breadth requirement). Finally, finding information on arts offerings and events is difficult, leading to less participation than might otherwise be achieved.

Social Climate

Student responses in the overarching node of Social Climate indicate they don’t participate in the arts as a result of a lack of confidence in their artistic abilities due to their current level of expertise, previous experience, or innate talent, especially as it relates to their peers who are involved in the arts. Students also indicate that they feel they are not welcome in arts groups due to their new or lower skill levels or their “outsider” status. Apprehension and Exclusiveness are the descriptive labels of the two major topic categories in this node.

Apprehension: Low Confidence and Lack of Familiarity

Responses around Apprehension relate to the student’s perceptions of their current abilities, experience, or personal traits in the arts as the impediment to their arts participation. Responses related to Low Confidence are typically about their perception that they are not as talented, “artsy,” experienced, or able to benefit from participation in the arts as other students who are participating. As a large and elite institution, U-M draws a bigger pool of talented, arts-focused individuals, creating an entire category of students who would like to participate but believe they will be “out-competed” for opportunities by others. This personal evaluation seems to discourage students from even attempting to participate. Responses in the Lack of Familiarity area address their desire to try something new in college, but not having the prior arts experiences that would make that possible. Exposing that inexperience, or having it indeed shut a student out of participation, leads directly to students’ anxiety surrounding college arts participation.

Representative Quotes

“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.”

“I felt that my talents were not on the same high level as those at the University of Michigan or that my interest in the arts was personal and not as a part of my major, therefore I felt less qualified to participate than others.”

“No barriers, but many other things to do. Also, UMich has many other talented artists which discourage people who aren’t as naturally talented from participating because they aren’t naturally “artsy;” I don’t think it’s a problem you can fix because it’s benefit to have those who are naturally talented.”

“Because I am not skilled in the arts. I feels as though I wouldn’t be able to benefit in being a participant in the arts such as plays or visual art displays.”

“Feeling inexperienced or not talented compared to the rest of participants.”

“My overall experience with the Arts was limited prior to college. As a result, I had limited interest in becoming involved in the arts at the University of Michigan.”

“My own inhibition. Art is new and novel to me–it was highly emphasized at my high school, so it was something that I appreciated, but I was afraid to try.”

“Sometimes it is hard for students to try something new with no prior experience in high school (for example writing for a publication without having written for their high school newspaper). Auditions or interviews might scare away prospective students looking to involve themselves in something new…”

“I did not have any previous experience with the arts or else very minimal exposure prior to attending U of M, therefore I didn’t feel comfortable joining something that I wasn’t good at or was just a beginner.”

“Nervousness about doing something new.”

Exclusiveness: Competitive Auditions and Unwelcoming Environment

Responses under Exclusiveness relate to students’ perceptions of the lack of non-competitive arts entry points, existing social bonds that allow only certain students to gain access to opportunities, and the unwillingness for student art organizations to take on less experienced members who are looking for new or growth opportunities. There is also a frustration reported in having tried to access opportunities multiple times, only to have experienced serial and discouraging rejections, or having to settle for less desirable options. Competitive Auditions are a fact of life in many arts activities, especially those in the performance areas. This is a typical barrier for participation, but students report that in some instances, they present the only option for participation in their desired activity. The high ability levels of peers competing for these opportunities is also a factor (See Low Confidence). Students report wishing there were more informal or broadly accessible opportunities for participation in the arts. In the Unwelcoming Environment category, students report on the social barriers in place and the judgement they perceived from those already involved with an arts activity. Those who were already skilled and passionate were seen as unwelcoming to those who were new, less skilled, less committed, or non-arts majors. Students reported feeling awkward or intimidated about interjecting themselves into an established “clique” or into arts “territory.” Finally, the expected level of engagement in arts activities was often too high for a more casual participant looking to experiment or just have fun.

Representative Quotes

“Tryouts for dance teams prevented me from joining certain groups.”

“I tried out for so many a cappella groups and didn’t make any of them 🙁 I also tried out for a dance group that I didn’t make. I tried to join Arts Chorale but it was too much time for only one credit. I just want to sing in a choir, but I can’t get into any groups or make time for any!”

“I wanted to be in an acapella group and had tried out for 4-5 my sophomore and freshman year. I got called back from two different groups but didn’t make it from there. It was hard because I really wanted to be in an acapella group and not in a choir, so therefore I haven’t gotten to sing here, which makes me sad.”

“Too much competition (specifically, as a freshman, I tried out for and got rejected by the Men’s Glee Club and other a cappella groups; I’ve also been rejected for several theatrical performances that I have tried out for).”

“I was interested in joining a dance group. There are not that many groups in my style of dance on campus and auditions were competitive. There is simply not enough space for all the talented dancers on campus so I started my own group which was very difficult but extremely rewarding. Now funding (or lack thereof) is a huge barrier.”

“I feel like the people that are involved are super passionate about the arts and sometimes I feel awkward going into their territory”

“Very clique-y. Unless you are in the art school/performance school there aren’t too many ways to get involved because of perception. If you say you are an actor people assume you are good. If you say you are a econ major for example, people assume you aren’t talented enough. Majors tend to define people here.”

“I know a lot of people who want to join choirs/dance clubs/art clubs but feel intimidated that they are too “novice” for them.”

“There are no informal clubs for people that just want to learn about cool media areas of art. There should be a hip-hop music computer creation club and a music video creation club that are informal, hip, modern, and fun.”

“I feel like they are only for people who are either really good or extremely passionate about the arts not just those who are looking to experiment.”

University Structure

University Structure refers to reported barriers such as those related to curriculum requirements, class scheduling, and major/minor programs; the lack of value, support or encouragement for engaging in creative or artistic endeavors; poor arts integration across disciplines; the controlled access to specialized major resources or facilities; the high rigor or access requirements for arts-related coursework and activities; and the general paucity of and long wait-lists for arts courses open to non-arts majors.

Academic Program Requirements

Academic Program Requirements are an arts participation barrier, with respondents citing arts-major programs not allowing access to non-majors who want to explore the arts – either through the addition of minors or by making it easy to select outside arts courses. Non-arts academic programs did not include the arts in their required coursework, or enough unstructured time to participate in extra-curricular arts activities. Schools and colleges in the arts did not increase the curricular arts options open to non-majors either because of enrollment restrictions or the limited number of courses offered. Students also reported having to gain acceptance into specialized programs to access lab and studio equipment, which stymied their full arts ambitions. Finally, the University did not encourage or prioritize robust arts participation through its limited Creative Expression requirements.

Representative Quotes

“One barrier I would say is with the creative writing program. I applied to be a sub-concentrator and did not make it into the program. Then, the creative writing minor was brought in as a program that I couldn’t participate in because I’m already an English major. As a result, I was closed off from some writing classes and opportunities not because I was disinterested, but because with my major I wasn’t allowed to add on the minor. This was very frustrating for me, as creative writing is the focus of my studies and my goals in life.”

“I was in the School of Art and Design, which seemed like a particular sector of the arts. It seemed like the arts were somewhat separated, for instance the RC’s art program seemed sort of random and narrow. But though I’m not in the School of Art & Design any longer, it sounds like they’re getting much better with integration in other fields–i.e. computer programming, people from school of engineering. I think that would boost the arts quite a bit.”

“Classes needed for the arts are offered at very specific times every semester, which is fine. However, my involvement then precluded enrollment in many classes that were options (of very few classes total) to fulfill my degree requirements for Neuroscience. I ended up taking classes I was much less interested in so that I could still be involved in band. Other majors are not as flexible as my own, so other students who were involved in the band had to quit in order to take classes they needed, as the departments offering the classes would not reschedule the classes to better accommodate these students.”

“There is not enough of a focus on the arts at U-M. Everyone in LSA must obtain a few creative expression requirements, it is a tiny portion of the overall credits needed for graduation.”

“I think with such a strong arts,theater and music program there aren’t many easy, relaxed programs.”

“(I am part of a )Peer Mentor group on campus and have tried several times organize a for-fun activity getting students to try creating art. For example, I wanted to host a photography event where students could shoot a roll of fill, I would send it into the School of Art & Design to have it developed, then we would create prints from the film, but the photo development services are only for Art majors. Also, I tried hosting a clay making event where students could make something out of clay and have it fired for them. Apparently these labs are only for art students as well. It would be nice if services like these were open to the greater student population so that they could (even f there is an associated cost) so that non-art students can engage in and create art.”

University Priorities

Student experience what we are calling University Priorities as a barrier to their arts participation. As a research university, there is little emphasis placed on creativity as a shared value and a desired outcome of student’s educational journey here. This is evidenced by the perception that a majority of funding, attention and pride flows to business and engineering, versus, say, our top musical theatre programs – both from U-M and the State of Michigan. The small number of arts-related course offerings, each with long waitlists, would indicate the need for more such courses, but that is not viewed as a priority. Engaging in arts activities, or anything that is not traditionally regarded resume-building, is discouraged.

Representative Quotes

“The University of Michigan is not a school that particularly encourages creative development. Every CE [Creative Expression requirement] class has an enormous waiting list within a few days of registration. This should lead to the creation of more CE classes. I wish I could have taken one every semester.”

“Michigan is such a research based university…our “creativity” is not something the university prides itself on. They’re way more about technological innovation. The funding seems to all funnel towards business and engineering programs. For example, I recently learned Michigan has one of the highest ranked musical theatre programs in the country with one ten males and females per grade….but I feel like nobody even knows that!”

“I am an engineer, and many of my peers are only involved in engineering organizations. For my first two years at Michigan, I felt pressured to only join organizations that would look good on my resume when applying for engineering jobs. However, I decide to join the Irish dance team during my junior year because I had always wanted to learn Irish dance, and it was one of the best decisions I have made in college.”

“I am not very talented in the arts and I wish the University of Michigan would help me develop that skill more.”

Departmental Segregation

Student respondents found that the Departmental Segregation–that is, not being allowed to enroll in or have ready access to arts courses offered outside their school, college or academic discipline–kept them from engaging in the arts at U-M. There is a lack of access to studio space or resources for students not enrolled in specific arts programs or schools, and when enrolled in arts courses, the social isolation of being one of the only “outside” students in an arts course was uncomfortable. There were few “general” arts options for students wanting to explore, and without gaining access to highly competitive student arts organizations, there was an expressed fear that students would not have been able to participate in arts activities at all at college.

Representative Quotes

“For the most part there are not enough avenues for students interested in visual arts such as woodworking, ceramics, etc to gain studio access or resources to engage their visual art of choice.”

“I didn’t necessarily experience any, but if I hadn’t gotten into the Michigan Pops Orchestra, I might have been too intimidated to tryout for the orchestras run by the school of music and then would not have been involved in the arts at all. More student-run orchestras would thus be a benefit.”

“Because the School of Music and LSA are separate, and on different campuses, it was hard taking classes as a LSA student within the School of Music because I didn’t have as frequent access to the resources and I rarely knew anyone in my classes.”

“The options are almost too specific, I miss the general options in high school that made everyone feel welcome.”

“Difficulty finding recreational music groups (i.e. ones not necessarily affiliated with the school of music) and limited music classes for non-music majors.”

“The separation between LSA (history of art) and the Art and Design school – was very frustrating.”

“A lot of the arts are for students in the art school, and not for those in LSA or other school(s) who truly love art.”


Student respondents expressed frustration with the difficulty in finding, obtaining and acting on information and Publicity around arts events and activities. Having to actively look in multiple places for information, not receiving information in advance of events, and the sheer number of activities and events to sort through hampered their participation. They also cited the geographic problems with the “split campus” from an information flow standpoint, as they perceived that many arts events occurred on the campus they were less likely to frequent. Not being a member of a particular school or college also restricted access to information. Finally, the arts were perceived as being less well-marketed to the students than other types of activities.


Not having a good Awareness of arts events and activities reportedly kept students from participating in the arts to the extent they would have liked. Contributing to this barrier area was the lack of coordination between events organizers, calendars, and databases – there was not one good place to see the full picture of arts activities. Clear mechanisms to get both day-of and advance notice of events and activities was desired. Arts marketing efforts do not easily cross the campus divide, and there was a perception that arts activities and events were simply not as comprehensively marketed as other kinds of activities.

Representative Quotes

“Knowledge of functions…other than emails and flyers, there seems to be no popular domain with which to post campus-wide events for not only the arts, but other important events and happenings as well. A program to encourage the existing databases and calendars or the formation of a new one would be greatly beneficial.”

“The arts are not as well publicized as other campus events and it is easy to miss wonderful events simply because you didn’t hear about them.”

“The north campus/central campus thing. I feel like there is a great divide, and I often end up missing events that happen because I don’t know about them.”

“Events are often not publicized enough. I’d like to hear about events some time in advance as to allow it to fit in my schedule.”


Students reported needing to actively seek out information about arts events, creating Accessibility problems. Not only is information hard to find, requiring real dedicated effort, but often very little information actually exists. Conversely, so many seemingly similar choices made it hard to figure out what organization or activity might be right for those looking to participate.

Representative Quotes

“If you do not seek it, it is hard to find.”

“Finding the right one. There are so many different organizations that finding the right one can be difficult.”

“Not enough time or not actively searching. Also most of the information is not given, instead has to be actively searched for, making it a little harder to know what’s available.”

“can hardly find any information about art events.”

“There are almost too many organizations that it’s hard to find one that I could get involved with.”

“There are so many groups one can join that it is easy to find yourself committed to one or two that are not in the arts and then have less time to devote to the arts. This is not always a bad thing, but it’s a challenge.”

Priorities and Tradeoffs

In the node of Priorities and Tradeoffs, students cite their heavy Course Load as one of the greatest barriers. They also state that the arts are not important enough to their majors or their careers to warrant participation. Time, Distance Between Campuses, and Cost (Logistics) were also major barriers. Finally, some students indicate they were just Not Engaged in the arts, or reported they had encountered few or No Barriers to participate at the level they desired.

Academic Priorities

In addition to the formidable barrier of Course Load, students also found it difficult to prioritize the arts because they were insufficiently connected to their majors, not offered or encouraged as a part of their coursework, or not obviously aligned with their career goals.

Fit With Major and Course Scarcity

Students respondents mainly reported difficulties in taking art courses outside their majors because there were few courses open to non-arts majors, and those that were were inaccessible due to few seats or the lack of space in a course schedule designed to fulfill requirements (Fit With Major and Course Scarcity). They were unsure how they might fit arts courses into their schedule and needed additional help to do so. They also commented on needing to prioritize activities that more closely aligned with their career goals.

Representative Quotes

“I don’t have time since it doesn’t correlate with my future career goals or major.”

“The arts classes that are available for non majors are very small and it’s extremely difficult for freshmen/ sophomores to get a seat in classes like photography or clay for non majors.”

“Science requirements for science majors make it difficult to take classes in the arts, and sometimes to experience extra art activities.”

“I was a double major and having declared an environmental studies major late in the game, I had too many requirements to fulfill in my last two years to be as involved in arts as I would have liked.”

“It’s hard for me to be involved in the arts because of my major which doesn’t give me much time to pursue things that I would be interested in pursuing. I also don’t know how easy it is for non majors to get into art classes.”

Course Load

A large percentage of student respondents indicated simply and directly that their academic Course Load was too great (sometimes in conjunction with other more highly prioritized activities), to be involved in the arts at college.

Representative Quotes

“The course work loads are too demanding to leave free time to go to the arts events.”

“Course demands not leaving enough time.”

“Engineering curriculum too time demanding.”

“Heavy workload from my courses, other obligations.”

“Time, due to the heavy course load as well as other extracurriculars that I have.”


Time was the single largest reported barrier cited by students, either that involved in participating in the arts activity itself, or in the logistical effort to do so (i.e. travel). They “could not do everything,” and the arts were sometimes cited as outside the students’ interest areas or priorities, as related to their free time.

Representative Quotes

“Time constraints with school and extracurriculars”

“Time commitment/other commitments in sorority”

“Time constraints, not a priority for me.”

“Strict engineering curriculum, wasn’t my priority for the little free time I had for extra curricular activities.”

“Time constraints. It’s difficult to do everything.”


Logistical considerations fill out the majority of this topic area, with students reporting difficulties with transportation, the geographic locations of arts events, the cost of tickets (sometimes within the frame of cost/benefits, sometimes as a pure affordability concern), and the time or resources it takes to attend or participate. Students also report wanting to go with friends to events, and speaking to the difficulties coordinating those efforts.

Distance Between Campuses

The perception that North Campus is too far from Central Campus, where many arts activities occur, was noted as a barrier, and this “split campus” was a factor in learning about arts activities as well. This is a barrier that might be unique to U-M, though this kind of campus “split” or geographic barrier to various kinds of participation is not uncommon at other institutions. And although the regular bus trips between the campuses are relatively short and convenient, weather, commute time, inconvenient activity scheduling, and the poor information flow between the campuses were contributing barrier factors.

Representative Quotes

“Distance – Especially in the winter. I live in Central Campus and the practices were held in North Campus at nights.”

“I lived on central campus my first two years and it was difficult to know all of the events that happened on North Campus. Now that I live on North Campus I am much more exposed to the events that are happening.”

“Most art stuff is on North Campus, and I live on Central.”

“Conflicts with classes, project due dates, and other activities. Arts at Michigan also tend to be on Central campus not North. I live on North.”

“Split campus makes learning about arts on north very difficult if you were to live on central.”

“Transportation sometimes. The bus system can be really slow sometimes, and the prices are sometimes high.”


Cost, as expressed here in terms of personal affordability as well as a cost/benefit analysis, was not a large barrier, but an expected one for some students. The arts were sometimes described as a luxury that was hard to justify against the perceived benefit of participation. Students expressed a desire for access to more free high-quality events and activities, while acknowledging that those events have justifiable costs and value.

Representative Quotes

“Sometimes I would rather not pay to see performances, but I understand that the performances need to have these fees due to costs of the production.”

“I think cost to participate and attend certain art exhibits and performances can be a barrier to involvement. Arts, for me, is an outlet and a luxury, so if I couldn’t afford to participate/attend, then I wouldn’t. If things were less expensive/free, I would have participated more.”

“Nope. Simply comparison of benefit versus cost.”

“Some form of art are not as easily accessed and some do come with a cost that can be hard to justify sometimes.”

“Sometimes it’s expensive – I’d like to get more involved in photography but can’t afford the equipment and studio fees.”

“Not willing to spend money to go to shows or performances. Wish there were more free events, and ON CENTRAL CAMPUS.”

Friend/Cost Ecosystem

The Friend/Cost Ecosystem topic respondents moved from reporting directly on value or affordability barriers to the desire to have U-M offer subsidies or strategies to work around financial constraints. Students also indicated that their friends not attending (due to perhaps their own time and cost constraints) kept them from participating as well.

Representative Quotes

“I really appreciate the discounted tickets to Hill Auditorium, but I wish that there were more ways to get complementary tickets to events. For mid-week events, there are often many seats left empty, and I’m sure plenty of students would be willing to write reviews or volunteer in exchange for tickets – something like Arts Ambassador, but not restricted to dorm residents.”

“Time commitments and tickets at Hill are sort of expensive. It would be nice if they let students in for free if they had extra seats; I have no idea how they would accomplish this.”

“Ticket price, finding friends to attend events with, too much classical music not enough newer options.”

“Cost. I took several art and design classes as a non-art major and had to spend a lot of money out-of-pocket to pay for materials in addition to the lab fee that is already charged to my student account. I also enjoy attending UMS concerts, and I would not be able to attend without the student half-price ticket sale.”

“Some of my friends weren’t interested in the arts. Transportation Didn’t have enough advance notice about a lot of the art events on campus to be able to attend.”

Not Engaged

Engaging in the arts in college is not a priority or interest area for every student, as should be expected (Not Engaged). Respondents in this topic listed a variety of personal reasons they were not engaged in the arts at U-M, including but not limited to lack of planning, lack of motivation, lack of art interests, lack of arts talent, and lack of previous exposure. A percentage of students also indicated they experienced no reportable barriers to participating at the level to which they had aspired.

No Barriers, Except…

Representative Quotes

“I haven’t gotten my schedule down yet so I’m still too scattered to be committed to anything right now.”

“I don’t know about anything until it’s already done.”

“None except for time”

“The barriers would be just getting more informed and the desire to become involved in the arts at the University of Michigan.”

“I don’t experience any barriers preventing me from being involved in the arts. I’m simply not interested in the arts. If I was interested in the arts, then I am positive that there are many ways at U of M that I could get involved in them.”

Lack of Personal Interest

Representative Quotes

“Lack of personal interest. Lack of exposure.”

“Time constraints, lack of motivation to initiate involvement, lack of interest.”

“Lack of motivation or interest.”

“I didn’t experience any barriers, I just didn’t have a very strong interest in the arts coming into college so I didn’t choose to involve myself much in the arts.”

No Barriers

Representative Quotes

“The barriers would be just getting more informed and the desire to become involved in the arts at the University of Michigan.”

“I don’t experience any barriers preventing me from being involved in the arts. I’m simply not interested in the arts. If I was interested in the arts, then I am positive that there are many ways at U of M that I could get involved in them.”

“I do not see any barriers preventing one from being involved in the arts at the University of Michigan.”


Representative Quotes

“I didn’t, it’s just something I don’t particularly enjoy.”

“I didn’t experience any barriers, I just didn’t have a very strong interest in the arts coming into college so I didn’t choose to involve myself much in the arts.”

“More publicizing of arts opportunities, know that arts opportunities probably exist but didn’t really know of many specifically.”

“Oftentimes I didn’t hear about a really interesting event/performance until after it was over; so basically lack of advertising was my main obstacle.”

“I just think I am not very artistic and it is better I just appreciate it then create it. I enjoy plays and reading, but I have a really hectic schedule and so I haven’t had a lot of time for arts.”