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Surveying the scene

Barry McNamara
09/01/2010
Surveys say: Monmouth College
very successful in educating students

Measuring the success of a college or a university is a touchy subject, similar to the gray areas of grading a 10-page essay compared to the black-and-white results of a 10-question “true-false” test.

By one measuring standard that is increasing in popularity, Monmouth College has reached a major milestone, topping the national average across the board among private liberal arts colleges.

For years, rankings by such popular surveys as U.S. News and World Report have been considered the best way to put a numeric value on an institution of higher learning, but lately, stock is increasingly being put in the findings of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

“We’ve participated in NSSE for seven of the past eight years, and we tend to score around the median for small residential colleges, which is not a bad place to be,” said Monmouth College president Mauri Ditzler. “This year, though, for the first time, we were above the average score for all 10 of their benchmarks.”

The 40-question survey is broken down into five benchmarks of effective educational practice: level of academic challenge; active and collaborative learning; student-faculty interaction; enriching educational experiences; and supportive campus environment.

“Some of the questions include how often students talk with professors outside of class, how often they are assigned to write papers of five pages or more and whether or not they’ve studied a foreign language,” said Ditzler.

Two groups of students are surveyed – freshmen and seniors – resulting in 10 sets of data, five benchmarks for each class.

Ditzler said Monmouth’s scores in the NSSE report are noteworthy for a number of reasons, including the growing trend to look at the engagement survey as a better indicator of a college’s success than the U.S. News rankings.

“In our board of trustees’ vision statement, they set the target of being in the top 10 percent of all of the NSSE results by the year 2025,” said Ditzler. “They didn’t set a similar goal related to U.S. News. When they set a goal, this is the survey they focused on. We have not yet achieved this ambitious goal, but we are making good progress.”

Ditzler said the college did “very well” in the supportive campus environment benchmark. It was the highest score for both freshmen and senior students, and it was also the score that improved the most among freshmen students.

Through its student survey, The College Student Report, NSSE annually collects information from hundreds of four-year colleges and universities about student participation in programs and activities that institutions provide for their learning and personal development. The results help to show how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending college.

Survey items on The College Student Report represent empirically confirmed “good practices” in undergraduate education. That is, they reflect behaviors by students and institutions that are associated with desired outcomes of college.

The NSSE results go hand-in-hand with favorable figures received from the ACT (American College Testing) Student Opinion Survey.

“Our scores there were the strongest ever,” Ditzler said. “We scored high in areas such as, ‘Do you feel that the faculty cares about you as a person?’ and the same for staff, and we made a significant jump in ‘Would you recommend Monmouth to a prospective student?’”

Other areas that received improved scores included student government and personal security and safety.

Ditzler noted that Monmouth typically makes big jumps in areas that the students have previously identified as unfavorable.

“By rule, some areas fall in the lower half of our scores,” he said. “In the past, it was athletic facilities, and we were able to significantly improve there. Then it was food, and we responded with a new cafeteria and many more dining options. More recently, it was laboratory space, and we’ve made significant improvements there, including adding air conditioning in our science building, and we have more on the way.”

The college continued to receive high satisfaction marks in several areas, including the general condition of the buildings and grounds, the library and availability of instructors.

Viewed side by side, Ditzler said a logical conclusion can be drawn from results of NSSE’s College Student Report and the ACT survey.

“We had a pretty good year last year,” he said.