Student Engagement, Not Alumni Giving, Is a Quality Indicator

Over at Forbes.com I’ve written several entries about college rankings and the National Survey of Student Engagement. In existence for nearly 20 years, NSSE has developed an extensive survey of “student engagement” or what college students actually do on their campuses. It focuses on academics: How many hours per week do you study? How much writing do you do? and so on. NSSE administers the survey directly to freshmen and seniors at participating institutions, so it also provides a window into what happens over time at each school.

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Here’s a selection from NSSE’s home page that defines its terms and function:

  • What is student engagement?
    Student engagement represents two critical features of collegiate quality. The first is the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities. The second is how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning.                                                                                                                                              What does NSSE do?
    Through its student survey, The College Student Report, NSSE annually collects information at hundreds of four-year colleges and universities about first-year and senior students’ participation in programs and activities that institutions provide for their learning and personal development. The results provide an estimate of how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending college.

Whatever else a college or university offers, these qualities should be primary. Especially important for anyone contemplating or evaluating colleges should be that last phrase, “what [students] gain from attending college,” what some might call “return on investment” or ROI. All the bells and whistles mean little if students leave college not having developed their reading, writing and thinking skills, their ability to approach problems and issues critically, and their facility with numbers and scientific ideas.

Since the survey queries students directly and there are no incentives that might color their answers, its results provide essential information that can help colleges do some self-searching and improve their programs where necessary. They can also see their own results in relation to their peers’. Participating in NSSE is part of the thoughtfulness that a good education itself provides, and institutions that participate are to be commended for taking the opportunity to do so.

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Although the public can’t see specific results for institutions, it can generalize results over categories. NSSE also provides a very concise set of questions (English/Spanish) students and families can and should ask as they consider applying to college. They can be summed up as “How do you intend to educate me/my child?”

It would seem reasonable for institutions to participate in NSSE in order to perform the self-evaluation most businesses prize. Feedback from customers is crucial to maintaining and improving the quality of offerings. Yet as I went through the list of NSSE participants, I noticed something interesting: Many prominent, highly-ranked institutions don’t appear or haven’t participated for nearly ten years or more.

Many recognizable names have, such as Pitzer, Tulane, UNC, UMass/Amherst, Vassar, Grinnell, Carleton, Dickinson, and the University of Virginia. However, of the 529 names on the current list, many are of institutions toiling mightily in the shadow of rankings. Many have participated almost yearly. Some even feature a version of NSSE results on their webpages (although they are not permitted to cast them as any kind of ranking). Institutions like Albion, Albright, Berea, Ursinus, Florida State, Franklin, Illinois College, Marietta, Ripon, Susquehanna, the University of Iowa, and the University of Richmond have all been frequent participants in the survey.

The missing institutions are ones most people recognize instantly and which have reputations that precede them. The list of missing or lapsed institutions includes:

Stanford

Trinity College (CT)

Northwestern University (last participated in 2000)

University of Chicago

Notre Dame

Amherst (2008)

Harvard

Mt. Holyoke (2008)

Smith (2008)

Tufts (2009)

Wellesley (2008)

Williams (2008)

MIT

Bowdoin

Bates

Washington University in St. Louis

Davidson

Duke

Rice (2007)

Dartmouth

Princeton

Columbia University

Oberlin (2008)

Swarthmore (2008)

University of Pennsylvania

Brown

Cornell

Yale

The fact that these well-known schools haven’t participated in NSSE or haven’t done so in a while says nothing in itself about the quality of student engagement at each campus. However, if one mark of a first-class educational is the ability to assess oneself, interpret evidence, and discover ways to improve or adapt to changing times, these non-participants should consider taking the plunge, regardless of their status. A willingness to probe what’s going on with students indicates a real concern for quality that’s about more than food or dorm space, but about why students are on campus in the first place.

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Far more than rankings relying on dubious criteria that say little about academic quality (except by even more dubious inference), NSSE provides a genuine insider’s look at the academic experience from students themselves. With nearly 20 years of data and analysis behind it, NSSE has a weight and legitimacy that make it a valuable tool for colleges and universities, as well as for families searching for an institution that will provide a solid education for their tuition dollars.

Participating in NSSE isn’t hard, either. Colleges and universities spend hours (in theory) filling out ranking questionnaires sent them by U.S. News and other publications; NSSE does all the work for them. It provides each school with in-depth findings and analysis designed to be used, including how they look in relation to peer institutions. It provides general information to the public, so institutions can reveal results as they see fit (although again, not as a way to “rank” themselves). It’s inexpensive enough for even small schools to use from year to year. There’s also a Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE) that can provide even more useful information. (If NSSE is “Nessie,” is FSSE “Fessie?” “Fussie” might be closer…) Finally, it enables institutions of higher education to fully demonstrate their commitment to the educational enterprise.

Amid the hoopla of rankings fever, the National Survey of Student Engagement provides genuinely useful if unglamorous information for colleges and universities. Each school’s  participation indicates to families that the institution takes its educational responsibilities seriously. In our educational climate, unfortunately, reputation can count for a lot (see list above) but that’s not even part of the iceberg when it comes to investing your child and your money in a college. It should be standard practice for families to ask admission officers whether their institution has participated in NSSE and what they discovered, and if not, why not.

No institution is perfect or possessed of eternal verities enabling it to glide from year to year without altering to meet new circumstances. To do so, it must continually question itself. Because education is such a complex and interactive phenomenon, all parties involved need to know how it functions in every aspect. A successful institution makes that interaction as valuable as possible so its students can, in the end, gain as much as possible.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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2 Responses to Student Engagement, Not Alumni Giving, Is a Quality Indicator

  1. Eileen McGlynn says:

    Will, A shot in the dark, like William Tell. Or more appropriate, like the mythical arrow that the Morton County Sheriff Department in North Dakota just claimed came from a wild Indian shooting at their surveillance helicopter as it harasses good Americans praying in ceremony below. The militarized deputies blew away a legally flying Native Media drone which was used to inform all of us of what is happening at Standing Rock. We join search for prized academic apple. In lieu of finding contact, I write here. Appreciate your out of box thinking.
    Trying to convince self ‘where u go is not who will become’ and all that. Senior son, education refugee from 99768 bush AK to Olympic town 12946 in 7th grade. Catch-up effort to mainstream-privileged school environment ever since. Dim counselor never thought to tell us about Upward Bound program and all tutoring was out of own pocket at times. Is the turtle in hare race but scored 5.0 in 1st AP US History yet lousy in math due to previous 3rd world American village education and mom’s inadequate homeschool attempt for a year. Placed on plane to lower 48 some 5 years ago, a fantastic son alone to unfamiliar uncle. Followed, at end of year so son continued to progress. All pals take for granted High Honor Roll status from grooming since birth.
    Son runs own academic race and obtains positions in national Native youth groups and small acts of activism. As a household we follow epic mobilization of tribes in Cannonball, ND as his peers there appeal to Mainstream media, government and American neighbors for empathy and environmental justice. Dilemma as to choice of NYS college, Native area one, shoot for the rare college moon of a exclusive few with Native Studies minors and able to continue ‘catch-up’ on own pace? Thrives in History. At ease in all worlds, from rustic log cabin and snowshoe maker dad, unique in many ways. Understand more dominant culture world in college but which to apply to with a hope and a prayer (zippo funds), yet retain own values?
    Character is excellent, as Turning the Tide report wants to groom same traits from birth (of 1%?-good luck),but didn’t have the zip code that grooms an “Excellent Sheep” and as a parent, I’ll never regret that! Where are those Making Caring Commons colleges when I need to figure out who deserves my son? Worth the shot at the Cyber Cloud- Thanks, Eileen

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    • Will Dix says:

      Hello Eileen– Please contact me at collegeforall@gmail.com where I can give you a more detailed reply. The short one is: Given what you’ve told me, I think your son may have some exceptional opportunities ahead of him, including his choice of colleges. He sounds like an extraordinary young man and I’d be pleased to help out.

      Will

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