Are you familiar with NSSE (pronounced ”Nessie”)? As a college parent, you may have looked at some NSSE results when your student was choosing a college. Or you may have heard from your college student that he has filled out a NSSE survey at his current school. More than likely, however, you may not be aware of NSSE. NSSE stands for the National Survey of Student Engagement, and as a college parent, it might be helpful to know something about it.
NSSE is an approximately ten year old, eighty-two question survey, conducted each year by researchers from Indiana University, which measures how students spend their time at college and what they gain from their college experiences. Over the life of the survey, more than 1400 colleges have participated at least once, and over 2.4 million students have been surveyed. Each year the survey is distributed to first year students and seniors at schools who choose to participate in the program. The results for 2009, released recently, come from students at more than 600 schools. The results of the NSSE survey are intended to help schools identify areas that may be improved in order to help students become more engaged in their learning.
The premise of the NSSE survey is that the more engaged students are in their college experience, the more likely they are to learn. It measures accepted ”best practices” in student engagement in five benchmark categories: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment. (For more information about these benchmark categories, see this article in USA Today.) Each school’s results are then compared to peer institutions.
For parents of students still involved in college choice
If your student is still in the process of selecting a college, a look at the NSSE results for that school may be one interesting factor. Over 400 colleges have chosen to have their results released in a database put together by USA Today. However, using the NSSE results in college choice requires some caution. Results are averages. There may still be wide variation at a single school. Keep results in perspective.
Considering these results does provide a broader picture than limiting consideration to many more typical college rankings, however. Many rankings consider what a school has, (such as number of books in the library, physical facilities, number of faculty with PhD’s, etc.) while the NSSE results consider actual student experiences. For example, rather than asking how many books are in the library, NSSE might ask how many books students actually read; rather than asking how many works of art are in the school’s collection, NSSE might ask how many students have attended an art exhibit; rather than asking how many faculty members have doctorates, NSSE might ask how many students have worked together with a faculty member on a research project. Consideration of NSSE results may give students, and their parents, pause as they think about the more usual indices of college rankings.
For parents of current college students
Perhaps one of the most beneficial aspects of considering NSSE results for your student’s school may be the topics that it can bring forward for discussion with your student of her experiences at school. As you look at the benchmarks, ask your student about her experiences in some of those areas. It may be less the choice of the particular college that will matter in the long run and more of what your student chooses to do while she is there that can make a difference in her experience.
George Kuh, Director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and Planning, the group that conducts the NSSE survey, has stated, ”What students do during college counts more in terms of desired outcomes than who they are or even where they go to college . . .That is . .. the time and energy students devote to educationally purposeful activities is the single best predictor of their learning and personal development.” This is a powerful message to students. It suggests that students have a tremendous amount of control over their college experience — no matter where they go to school. Study results strongly suggest that students who don’t interact much with others outside of class are often less satisfied with their college experience — and therefore are more likely to drop out.
Take a few moments to become familiar with the National Survey of Student Engagement benchmark categories. If results are available for your student’s school, take a look at them. But most importantly, whether your student is in the process of choosing a college or is already enrolled in college, talk to him about his experiences at school, or his hopes for school, and what he can do personally and directly to maximize those experiences, become involved and engaged, and make the most of his opportunities.