Dr. Amel Ben Abdesslem of Marymount University: “Why we must address college affordability”

College affordability: We are all aware of the importance of higher education. However, it is becoming more and more a luxury for the privileged few. Tuition are on the rise, which prevents college access to millions of low-income young adults. I am a fervent supporter of public investment in higher education. In my economics classes, […]

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College affordability: We are all aware of the importance of higher education. However, it is becoming more and more a luxury for the privileged few. Tuition are on the rise, which prevents college access to millions of low-income young adults. I am a fervent supporter of public investment in higher education. In my economics classes, I often talk about government expenditure and explain the importance of investments in physical infrastructure (roads, railways, bridges); but I also present the importance of greater investment in our educational infrastructure.


As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Amel Ben Abdesslem.

Dr. Amel Ben Abdesslem is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Marymount University’s School of Business and Technology and has been teaching in higher education for more than 10 years. Dr. Ben Abdesslem has published several articles on economics and education including economic growth and competitiveness in Europe. She is a French national residing in Washington D.C., and she is fluent in four languages.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I am an assistant professor of economics at Marymount University in Arlington, VA; and I have been teaching undergraduate economics for the past 10 years in several institutions in France and the U.S. My research is mainly focused on industrial policy, competitiveness policy, economic growth and innovation.

While I could have entered the corporate world after earning my PhD, I realized I would miss teaching tremendously. Academia has its challenges, but the rewards are more significant. Passing along knowledge and knowing you can have a positive impact on a student’s life makes academia rewarding and exciting.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Academic integrity has always been one of my greatest challenges as a teacher. Realizing a student has cheated during an exam or plagiarized on a project is profoundly disappointing. I remember, about a decade ago I asked a student to meet with me to talk about his essay, which I suspected he had plagiarized. Without the use of any preventive tools such as Turnitin, I struggled to explain or prove my suspicion to the student. He left the meeting abruptly, slamming the door behind him.

I’ve learned that not all students understand what plagiarism means and that the problem is much more complex than just laziness or poor judgement. As a result, I’ve adjusted how I teach. Whether teaching online or face-to-face, I now remind students about referencing their work and paraphrasing as well as the nuances of intellectual property.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to greatly transform our business environment in the short run as well as the long run. Companies must try to adapt rapidly. I’m involved in the Tandem Product Academy, which teaches senior executives and founders the essential skills needed to scale technology businesses. The professional teaching team is led by Jonathan Aberman, who is the managing director of Amplifier Ventures and the dean of Marymount University’s School of Business and Technology. The academy, which is free, is helping 17 established companies shift their business model and pivot towards a more suitable strategy that includes a fully virtual curriculum and one-on-one mentoring.

In collaboration with George Mason University, and thanks to the support of the GO Virginia initiative, we will assess the program’s effectiveness and hopefully expand it. We would like to help more companies remain competitive in what has become an increasingly more challenging environment.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  1. Quality of our learning institutions: Degrees or certificates from U.S. colleges and universities are widely recognized by employers and other universities as the best in the world. U.S. institutions are thoroughly evaluated and accredited, a fact that is more apparent to me now while our School of Business is working towards AACSB accreditation. This seal of quality is significant for our students and our community, because where students earn their degrees can affect graduate school options and career choices. Employers do pay attention to these things.
  2. Care given by faculty and staff: I have worked at several universities in the U.S. and in each institution — as different as they are — I have noticed the common commitment of faculty and staff. I have taught in a French university and know it is unlikely that a faculty member would reach out to a student who’s falling behind or not attending classes. I am ashamed to admit that when I taught in France, I barely knew my students’ names. There is a detachment between professors and students there. This could be cultural, but I realize now the importance of the professor-to-student connection and the relationship and trust that develops between teachers and students.
  3. Campus experience: For a long time I dismissed the importance of extracurricular activities, student events and sports teams in a college experience. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I realized that the lack of interaction and social activities seriously affected my students. While in France, I spent most of my student life with a very different experience, and I can say that there is something unique and special on U.S. college and university campuses.
  4. Classroom technology: When I started teaching in the U.S., I was surprised by all of the classroom technology at my fingertips, not only for faculty but also for students. My classrooms are equipped with smartboards, cameras and sound systems. I used to be covered in chalk after each class, so I’m more than happy to not have chalkboards anymore!
  5. Flexibility: Our college and university system is flexible and allows anyone to find an institution and courses fitting their particular needs, even working adults and parents. Furthermore, there is value in exploration. The U.S. system of earning credits encourages this kind of discovery, because students can pick and choose their electives.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

  1. College affordability: We are all aware of the importance of higher education. However, it is becoming more and more a luxury for the privileged few. Tuition are on the rise, which prevents college access to millions of low-income young adults. I am a fervent supporter of public investment in higher education. In my economics classes, I often talk about government expenditure and explain the importance of investments in physical infrastructure (roads, railways, bridges); but I also present the importance of greater investment in our educational infrastructure.
  2. Price of textbooks: I believe that we must diligently reduce the soaring cost of reading materials for our students. This is a nationwide issue, and it must be addressed to promote fair access to college. We need greater support for educators who decide to adopt open educational resources.
  3. Better opportunities needed: It’s important to assure there is a pathway to career opportunities that do not require a four-year university degree. Not all students are seeking traditional degrees nor are these traditional four-year degrees always needed by employers. Colleges and universities must offer a wider range of minors and degrees, and they should offer certificates and accelerated programs to streamline and speed up the transition from secondary education into viable and well-paying careers.
  4. Diversity and inclusion: We need to set a higher bar for multicultural inclusion in higher education. We must address shifts in our culture and demographics by actively raising awareness, by eliminating racial bias and discrimination and by building a stronger sense of trust on campuses. These changes benefit everyone, not just those who are traditionally marginalized and disenfranchised. Diversity is one of the strengths of the U.S. system of higher education.
  5. Provide even more flexibility: With the pandemic and the challenges professors encountered last spring, we had to quickly adapt to the changing environment. It was a steep learning curve for students and faculty, but now is not the time to sacrifice quality. We might have anxious students, but one of our responsibilities as faculty is to maintain high quality even in the face of turmoil. Having flexibility in how we deliver, teach, and assess means we can keep that quality high even while facing extreme uncertainty. It is crucial to offer a quality education to all our students.

Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?”

  1. Some teaching methods won’t work, and you will have to adapt to your students. Don’t expect these methods to automatically fit with your teaching style. Be open to change.
  2. Make your class fun, interactive and engaging. Students have different learning processes, and you may have to use different methods to reach all your students. For example, I use music to illustrate economic concepts. Not many people expect that to be possible, but it is very effective.
  3. Be a good listener. Students will come to you, sharing their personal problems or concerns. They trust you, so make sure you know about the different services the university offers (e.g. wellness center, health services, campus safety).
  4. Be understanding. Yes, some students may try to take advantage of your kindness, but being compassionate can motivate students to perform better instead of giving up.
  5. Be patient. The learning process can greatly differ from one student to another. Don’t hesitate to take your time, repeat information or change your approach so you can reach your students more effectively. Also, be patient with yourself. Teaching can be frustrating and difficult at times, so give yourself the right to make mistakes and to learn from them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn” (Benjamin Franklin). This quote is particularly relevant to my teaching philosophy. I make sure to involve my students in more than just lectures. I use games, activities and discussions to maximize their learning experience.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have lunch with Christine Lagarde, the former director of the International Monetary Fund and current president of the European Central Bank. I briefly met her at a Bastille Day party years ago, but I was too shy to ask her more than one question. She is often considered one of the most powerful women in the world, but she seems very approachable. Her accomplishments are remarkable, and she is such an inspiration to me.

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