The Many Paths to an Education

Rainesford Stauffer "somewhat blindly" chose her college, she tells us in an opinion piece in The New York Times. When she arrived she seems to have done some of what we tell students to do to succeed. She joined clubs and took her studies seriously.  But she "struggled to conform to campus life."

She did not return after her first-year of college.  Unfortunately, this is not unusual, as about 4 out of 10 first-year students do the same. One in ten will go to another school that next fall.  That leaves 3 out of 10 trying to figure out what else to do. 

The young woman goes on to tell us about how she went to work, volunteered, and eventually obtained some college credit for what she learned in her experiences (what is called "prior learning credit') and graduated from college this past spring.  

But clearly there was a mismatch between her interest and that first college. And perhaps a key to that mismatch is applying "somewhat blindly" to that college.  This is too important a decision to do "somewhat blindly," but often times people make such decisions this way. Perhaps that is why recent research indicates that half of college alumni wish that they had gone to a different college, or had a different major, or got a different kind of degree. 

Rainesford felt like a failure when the expectation she (and others) had of her life did not come true.  But her story is really one of success, in which she finds joy in different careers and eventually gets that degree.  The sadness is that she felt like a failure.

What I want is for a few things to happen.  One is that we make it easier for potential students to pick a college that is right for them.  There is just too little information out there about what matters and how to pick a place that is right for you.  Another is that going straight from high school to college is not the only way to be successful in life.  

Take a year off and figure out what you want to do and why you want to do it.  A gap year can be a great experience that can focus your thoughts.  It is not just for the wealthy.  There are many ways to earn what you need during a gap year. 

Take local classes at a community college while working and taking time to figure out what you are interested in.

There are many paths to an education.  That is more true every day in this world.  More and more people are taking paths like Rainesford that involve combinations and working and learning.  And at 23, I bet she is not done yet.  

Higher education does not start, or stop, after graduating from high school.  Learning is a life-long and enriching activity.  I just signed up for my first online course this past weekend and am pretty excited about it.  

Education should be something that one is excited about.  If it's not, maybe that's a sign to try it another way.  There are many ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is a Good Response Rate for Surveys?

"How can we get our survey response rates up?"

I'm asked this question a lot.  Everyone who conducts surveys wants more people to take their surveys.  But people, for the most part, don't seem to get excited about all the surveys we have for them.  With the ease of which a web survey can be created and implemented, more and more surveys are being launched.  And the more survey requests someone gets, the less likely it is that they will comply.  So response rates have been falling for years.  

There is an assumption that the higher the response rate is to the survey, the more accurate the results will be.  Oftentimes the first question I will get about a survey is about the response rate, because people have been conditioned to connect a low response rate with inaccurate results. This is most often used when someone does not like the results of the survey.  A low response rate lets people dismiss findings that they don't want to hear without actually having to deal with those findings. 

But (shhhh) nobody really knows what a good response rate is. 

I recently, however, came across a paper that addressed this in a great way.

"How Important are High Response Rates for College Surveys?" is a paper by Kevin Fosnacht, Shimon Sarraf, Elijah Howe, and Leah K. Peck all at Indiana University Bloomington that was published in The Review of Higher Education in the winter of 2017 (I've linked to a version of the paper you can access without a membership in any particular library source).  It is one of the best treatments of this issue I've read.

OK.  Now, think about web surveys.  You get an email asking you to take a survey.  Maybe you do that (thank you!), or maybe the email sits in your inbox and gets lower and lower until you forget about it.  A few days later you get another email asking you to take that survey.  But you are busy brushing your cat and there is hair everywhere and then after you clean that up there is that show you've been binge watching, and again you don't take the survey.  A few days later, there it is again, another reminder to take that survey.  But this time you aren't terribly busy with something else and it sounds kind of interesting, so you click on the link and take that fascinating survey.  

You've just gone from a non-respondent to a respondent.  If I hadn't sent you that second reminder (you knew it was me sending you that survey, didn't you? It's kind of what I do), you would not have taken it.  There is a direct relationship between the effort the researchers take to get people to respond (e.g., number of emails, offering incentives, leaving the survey open for longer times, etc.) and how many do respond. As the person administering the web survey, I also know when you completed it.  So I can tell if you did it right away after that first email (low effort), or if you only did it because I emailed you three times (high effort).

We can compare the results of the early respondents with those who are later respondents.  So, what are the results when we only had, say, 30% of the respondents answer?  Let's add in the next wave of respondents and see if the results change when we have 50% answering. This tells us if the results change (and maybe get more accurate?)  as a function of the response rates.  

The authors of this particular study took a large database of responses from multiple institutions to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to test this and, using the timing of the response, simulated surveys with various different response rates.  They could then see what happened if a survey had, say a 10% versus a 90% response rate.  Which is very cool.  

And what they found was that response rate didn't really matter much.

The reliability of the results was pretty good whether you used a 5% response rate or a 75% response rate.  In fact, what mattered more was how many respondents you had, with smaller numbers being less reliable than larger numbers.  Their study showed that reliable data could be obtained with a sampling frame of 500 even when the response rate was as low as 5% to 10%.  Obviously the numbers of respondents that you get should also be influenced by the types of analyses you want to conduct, especially if you want to look at subgroups of students (for instance, men versus women).  

One study should not overly influence our practices, but the authors also provide evidence of similar findings from other researchers.  I definitely recommend that you read their paper, as there as nuances in there that a blog cannot capture.  But perhaps we are seeing a move away from the tyranny of the response rate.   

 

More on Parental Communication in the First Year of College

Devoted readers will recall that my last blog post was prompted by a paper by Sax & Weintraub on patterns of communication between first-year college students and their parents.  After I'd written it I realized one thing was nagging me about the results, and so I contacted my friend and colleague Linda Sax, who was one of the authors.  I was struck that the article did not discuss if there had been different patterns of communication with mothers and/or fathers for male and female students, and so I asked.

Linda told me that this was actually the second paper they had written from this set of data, and that indeed the first paper (which she kindly sent me) had published results showing that yes, indeed, there were differences.

As one might expect, communication while students were in school was most frequent between mothers and daughters, and then between mothers and sons.  For fathers, the pattern was reversed: men were slightly more likely to communicate with fathers than mothers.  Many students were satisfied with the amount of contact they had, although 46% of women and 33% of men wanted more contact with their fathers.

The desire to want more communication with fathers is associated with declines in emotional wellbeing from entering college until the spring of freshman year.  While it is difficult to use this data to definitely say that lower levels of communication with fathers leads to lower levels of emotional wellbeing, this is certainly a good possibility.  

In the other paper I wrote about by Sax & Weintraub we saw similar results with lower levels of communication with fathers associated with lower levels of academic adjustment. 

Again, as parents we need to remember that our job is not done once that last box is moved from the car to the dorm room.  Keeping lines of communication open is key in helping students be successful in that crucial first year of college. 

Parental Communication in the First Year of College

On a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, the latest issue of the Journal of the First-Year Experience & Students in Transition arrived via the U.S. Postal Service, and I took the opportunity to sit down and have a good read.  It turned out that my friend and colleague Linda Sax, from whom I had inherited the position of director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, had a paper in this issue with her collaborator, Danya Weintraub. In this paper they examined the role of parents in first-year students' college adjustment.

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In this study, the authors used data from the CIRP Freshman Survey, filled out during orientation, and combined it with data from these same students on a follow-up survey the next spring.  All the students were attending a public university in the western United States. So the authors had two different points in time: at the beginning and towards the end of freshman year. 

The authors cited work I had done a few years ago, also with the CIRP Freshman Survey, with some questions I'd added on parental involvement in college-related decisions.  At the time, the "helicopter parent" was a popular term to describe parents that swooped down from above and intervened in their child's life.  The thinking was that this overparenting was creating young adults that were not getting the necessary experience with solving their own problems, as well as not being used to dealing with failure.  We were interested in finding out how students felt about their parents being involved in decisions such as where to go to college and what courses to take.  What we found was that to a large extent incoming freshmen thought their parents were involved the "right amount," and not too much or too little.

Getting back to Linda and Danya's article, they asked these freshmen, in the spring of their freshman year, about how often they communicated with their parents.  What they found was that students were in contact with mothers more than fathers, and that they mostly talked on the phone.  Texting was secondary to phone calls, and email was next.  This was in 2012, and my guess is that in 2016 texting might have taken over for phone calls.

While the more frequent communication with mothers was seen as just the right amount by 72% of students, the less frequent communication with fathers was just the right amount for only 55%.  One third, or 33%, of students reported that the level of communication with fathers was less that they would like.  

The authors then went a step further to see if parent-child interactions had a relationship with adjustment to college.  Those students who sought out their fathers for social and emotional support had stronger academic adjustment to college.  Those students who wanted more contact with their fathers than they had showed weaker academic adjustment. For fathers who are inclined to let mothers take the lead in communication, this is a wake up call.  We Dads need to be sure to keep lines of communication open.

Mothers are important too.  Academic adjustment was better for students who felt that they had high quality communication with their mothers.

When I dropped my daughter off at college this fall the school had a two-hour session for parents that was basically about letting go.  Parental communication was encouraged, but at the pace that the student initiates.  Not at helicopter parent rates.  I would add that it is important to check in with your student to make sure that they feel they are getting the support they need at the rate that they feel is best.    

   

What Parents Need To Know

I did something new this week.  Usually I speak to college faculty, administrators, researchers, or policy wonks about my research.  But having, once again, come out of the college admissions process alive and witnessing another excellent choice by one of my children, I had an idea to do something new.  Talk to parents of high-school students.

Choosing to go to college isn't easy.  There are a lot of choices and it is a big financial commitment.  There are also a lot of misperceptions out there.  I saw that in visiting colleges with my children and in talking with parents of their friends.  I've been in higher education for over 25 years and there were still things I didn't know.  So I decided to try and help, and spent about three months (off and on) putting together a talk that tries to convey some helpful information in what can be a time of great stress.   I want to reduce that stress for parents and students. 

 I approached Notre Dame High School's Counseling Department (both my son and daughter graduated from there and had excellent college counseling ) with the idea: would this be of interest?  Turns out it was, and on Tuesday night I spoke in front of a standing-room only crowd. 

I was interested in how well I predicted what would be interesting to parents.  Sure enough, the whole idea of tuition discounting was the one that shook the room.  I used the Department of Education's College Scorecard to demonstrate this.  Only a handful of parents knew of this resource.  One of the parents that came up to me after the talk told me he immediately got on his phone and looked up all the schools his child was interested in.

Here are the main categories I discussed:

Why go to college?
Does it matter where you go?
What does college really cost?
Will my child have crippling debt?
How do you do college right?

My goal with this is to make the process less stressful for parents, and then hopefully also less stressful for their children.  From what I heard Tuesday night, it might have worked.    

More On College Rankings

In today's Sunday New York Times, Frank Bruni has excellent advice for how one should use (and not use) college rankings.  

There are two schools of thought on rankings.  Those of us who have looked into how they are created are usually siding with Mr. Bruni: that 1) the premise is flawed to begin with and 2) no one ranking is going to be definitive for all prospective students.

I've written previously on how a multirank system that could be customized by the user would be a better system that the static rankings we have now.  There are a wide variety of rankings that all decide for the user what is important for them to look for in a college.  Having had two children go through the college search process, I can attest that there is no one size fits all.  As Mr. Bruni suggests, if one has to use rankings, then use several to illustrate different sides of a school.  For instance, if community service is of interest, use the Washington Monthly rankings to get an idea of some of the schools that foster such interests.

But, as I am also on record pointing out, the rankings aren't really used as much by prospective students, but more often by college presidents, trustees, and alumni.  The people creating the rankings know this, and some are not geared towards prospective students.

So refer to rankings if you need to.  But also do your own homework.  Rankings are like the old Cliffs Notes that would summarize plots of books for those students who didn't have the time or inclination to read the whole book.  You can get the gist of what happened, but you miss the nuances in the prose of what distinguishes a good book from a great book.  And don't we all want that great book?    

Learning About Contemplative Education

I was honored to have been asked to keynote at Naropa University's "Mindfulness, MOOCs and Money in Higher Education: Contemplative Possibilities and Promise" this past weekend at Naropa, bringing a higher education research viewpoint on how we are looking at new ways of defining and demonstrating success with our college graduates. 

It was indeed a delight to meet one of my fellow keynoter's, Laura Rendón, whose work I had long admired.  When I was director of CIRP, we took some of her validation concepts from the qualitative realm into the quantitative and created several validation constructs in the student surveys.

I came away with a new understanding of contemplative education, which encourages experiential learning and introspection in one's learning process.  I was struck how in many areas of education we see this in different ways.  In a sense, Sandy Astin's involvement theory is contemplative in nature, as it says that we get more from our education the more involved we are in it.  Work that I was involved in at Gallup showed the impact of internships that allowed one to connect that work environment and the academic learning in the classroom is surely a type of experiential learning.  Studies with the NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement) also clearly show the benefits of being engaged in and out of the classroom.

And so it was the best type of experience.  I went there thinking I was going to teach them, but perhaps I ended up learning the most. 

 

 

 

Upcoming Presentations

I have two presentations this spring with colleagues from Wake Forest University on work concerning college student wellbeing.  

ACPA: Tuesday, March 8  The Engine Model for Understanding And Assessing Student Wellbeing 

College student wellbeing is a topic of great interest among student affairs professionals, faculty, and the general public, yet there is not a comprehensive understanding of college student wellbeing. The Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment uses a new theoretic framework: the engine model of wellbeing. From this model a survey was created to measure wellbeing with the expressed intent to provide actionable information to program and policy for students. Results from the pilot in fall 2015 will be presented and discussed.

NASPA: Monday, March  Creating a Theory-Based Well-Being Assessment for Undergraduates

The Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment helps inform program and policy changes that promote wellbeing. The presenters will describe a new integrative theory of well-being that is focused on applicable measures and results that can be impacted in a college setting, how this theory was translated into a student survey, describe the results of our first pilot administration of the survey, and use this information to drive audience discussion.  

Revisiting Limitations, Reliability and Validity of Large Database Research

I am often asked for a copy of these remarks I made as part of a presidential panel at the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) in 2011.  Here is an edited version of that talk.

I know many of you from the applied side of educational research: institutional research.  I don’t think there is anyone I know here from another hat I have worn in the past, which is as a cognitive psychologist and where I first learned the literature on the complications of trying to investigate any human phenomena.  Given the complications, it’s a wonder any of us try at all.

Yet we do.  I cannot imagine what an association for the study of higher education might do if it were not filled with people who, despite the complications, tried to gather comprehensive and systematic data from the many different types of institutions of higher education that we have.  So that we could assess, and attempt to improve the experience for all students who aspire to hang a college diploma or certificate on their wall.

So, I welcome debate on this topic.  Everything we do should be reliable and valid, at least, as reliable and valid as we can make it without being paralyzed by doubt.  I wonder if someone, back in 1965, had said to Sandy Astin, “you know, you better like this CIRP thing, because it is going to dominate your life for the next 40 years…” he would have had second thoughts about this grand plan to inform higher education on the impact that college has on students.

Yet we cannot become like the congress: so divided and convinced in our own certitude that we not only accomplish nothing but anger a lot of people who rely upon us.  I do not want to see educational researchers on the chart that is making the rounds now that shows approval of Congress at 11%, lower than Paris Hilton and BP during the oil spill. 

Let me go back to Sandy.  If there is anything I have learned in the six years of directing CIRP is that you cannot go wrong by referring to Sandy Astin.  CIRP was started to answer big questions.  Big questions that could not be answered by a study over here that had one institution with their questionnaire and a study over there at a very different institution that phrased things differently.  Big questions that cross-sectional design could not and would never answer.  Big questions that needed a lot of little questions to get at the Big answers.  If Sandy Astin had waited until those questions were absolutely perfect and everyone agreed on how perfect they were, well, there would be a big hole in higher education research these days.  And Pat Terenzini and Ernie Pascarella’s book would have only been six inches thick instead of seven.

But, as science does, we build upon the past.

What concerns me about some of the current debate is that it seems to me like some of the debate in congress, which has, as we know, not accomplished anything except making a lot of us really upset at them.  Telling schools not to do NSSE is not the answer. We should recognize the limitations in NSSE. And CIRP.  And every other study of higher education out there.  But also realize that we are in better shape because of how the research from these tools has informed higher education in general as well as hundreds of institutions.

As scholars, sometimes we forget that after all, the ultimate reason for this kind of work is to inform institutional change.  Not get published, not get grants, not get tenure, not get invited to conferences, but to actually have an impact on what our students get out of college.  Results from NSSE, and CIRP, and NCES, and Ernie and Pat’s work. National results get institutions talking about why and how they do what they do.  Having a local version of those results, like CIRP and NSSE offer, provides a great service to institutions that they cannot accomplish themselves.  We should be looking how to improve these tools, not completely tear them down.

As to reliability and validity.  I can tell you a few things about CIRP research.  I can tell you how we have looked at student self-report on things like GPA and SAT scores and find them highly accurate when compared to the actual scores.  I can tell you how we have good correlations of self-report measures of academic self-efficacy and subsequent performance on some standardized tests such as the California Critical Thinking Skills Test.  I could also tell you that I would love to do more of this kind of work. If anyone has a few million out there to help me with that, please come see me after the panel.

For every paper you can show me about how invalid self-report surveys are, I can show another that says they are valid.  The key thing is not a blanket statement that people cannot remember what they did last week and so we should stop asking, but in crafting questions that allow them to answer in a way that they can answer with a certain degree of validity.  But remember, even in physics, there is uncertainty. 

Let’s look at a typical CIRP question that asks for recall. When asking incoming first-year students to reflect on the past year and indicate how often they, for instance, were bored in class, students are given only three response options: “frequently,” “occasionally,” or “not at all.”  Fairly straightforward in themselves as qualifiers, the instructions also specify: “if you engaged in an activity one or more times, but not frequently, mark ‘occasionally’ and go on to tell students to mark ‘not at all’ “if you have not performed the activity during the past year.”  The wording of these questions provides sufficient direction to respondents and not enough latitude to waver off into vagueness.

I have personally administered this questionnaire to thousands of students over many years.  In the room with them, offering to answer questions.  They had questions, but they were more like “I just got my student ID and I don’t remember the number, what should I do?” and “why do they ask these questions?” and “can I go to the bathroom?”  Nobody ever asked me what this section of the questionnaire meant. 

Even so, what level of specificity in results do we really need in order to provide useful information and how should we interpret results?  I am sure that all of you were as eager as I was to get up yesterday morning and read about the new NSSE results.  There is important information in there about a number of things, but let’s take majors.  One of the findings the media picked up on was that on average, engineering majors spent more hours studying than business or, pause for effect, social science majors. To be more specific, engineering students studied an average of 19 hours a week and education majors an average of 15 hours a week.  Do I believe that engineering majors tend to spend more time studying than education majors?  Sure.  Do I for a minute think that the population value if we had a perfect way of recording hours spent studying (putting aside the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for a moment which of course tells us that this is never going to happen) that the final all-knowing results would be 19 hours?  Not at all.

But the important piece of information here is the relationship between the groups.  That we can get without putting all the engineers in a box with Schroedinger’s cat.

Another important recognition here is that some questions just cannot be compared against outside standards.  Respondent opinions, perceptions, values, and beliefs about themselves are important aspects of their every day experiences, and have value.  Certainly the questions should be crafted with care, by people familiar with all the potential sources of bias that can impact results.  But, just because perceptions and values are not easily verified, does not mean that they are not important or reliable in predicting student achievement. 

There are scores of studies that examine the connection between perceived campus climate and outcome measures, such as graduation, that are backed up by triangulating with observations and interview studies.  This is why it is a common practice in research to also use multiple questions that examine the same trait from different perspectives to create constructs that attempt to describe a phenomenon.  More sophisticated methods, such as how we at HERI are using item response theory in creating constructs, also have moved the field forward in this regard.

There is a very rich body of literature on survey questions. I encourage those of you interested in this topic to attend the annual conference of the American Association of Public Opinion Research.  They are way ahead of us in the area of survey methodology.  Don Dillman’s work, in particular, is masterful.  These people live and breathe the impact of question wording, response options and even horizontal or vertical formatting of the responses.  But they all believe that if we apply what we know about creating questionnaires, we can effectively utilize questionnaires to collect useful data.

So, in summary, what do I believe?

1)    There are important questions that only large scale surveys can answer.

2)    As with any line of research, there is uncertainty.  We need to recognize it and acknowledge it in interpreting our results.

3)    We need to always move forward in making our measures better.

Some of you might have heard this quote from George Elliot.  We can perhaps let the sexism slide a bit, since George really was Mary Anne, and hope that were she writing today she would do so under her own name and without the male pronoun:

The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.

Of course, maybe she was thinking that it would be the perfect women that did it, right?

Let us by all means strive to be perfect. But let us not let our failings in that area mean that we do not continue to try ourselves and support those who battle beside us.

Too Many Applications? Think Again

Do we have a problem with too many high school seniors applying to too many colleges?

That’s what the New York Times thinks.  A front-page article on Sunday (November 15, 2014) about college admissions (Applications by the Dozen, as Anxious Seniors Hedge College Bets) claims that a lot of high school seniors these days are applying to “more colleges than anyone would have previously thought possible.”  The sidebar proclaims that there is “a perfect storm of ambition, neuroses and fear among high school students.” Yikes!

Well, there must be pretty good data behind this, right?  It was on the front page of the New York Times, after all.

To shore up this claim, the reporter cites two high school seniors, one who applied to 29 colleges, and another who applied to 18. Two cases. An N of two. 

OK, that’s the human interest side (we have names, a back story, and in one case, a picture of a young woman on her laptop, presumably writing application number 29).  What else? A high school staff member tells a story of one person who applied to 56 schools.  Naviance (a company that, among other things, has a web-based program that helps high school students with the application process) says that 1 student in the US has 60 colleges they are thinking about applying to. 

So far I am not really impressed. Two interviews with students and two examples of hearsay.

Finally we get some actual data based on more than a few conversations.  The reporter tells us that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has a survey that says that in 1990 nine percent of college freshmen had applied to seven or more colleges, and by 2011 (which the reporter tells us is the most recent data), this had risen to 29%.  Now we’ve got some data. 

Only it’s not quite right, as this is not a NACAC survey, it’s the CIRP Freshman Survey, which NACAC clearly credits on their website as the source. It looked very familiar to me, since I directed the CIRP Freshman Survey for eight years, and provided the information to NACAC at the time.  We would typically have around 200,000 students represented in the CIRP Freshman Survey database each year (note to reporters, that is not a “2,” it’s “200,000”).

While the source is wrong, the numbers cited are correct.

Even though the reporter did not actually use the most recent data or the most relevant data.  Figures for the class entering in fall of 2013 (not 2011) have been released, and the percentage of four-year college first-year students who applied to seven or more schools rose to 31.6. 

But wait, seven schools isn’t what this is about. It’s about 18, or 56, or maybe even 60 if that student using Naviance applies to all the ones being considered.  The CIRP data doesn’t tell us about such high numbers because we topped out the available responses by asking about 12 or more applications. And that’s at 5.9% of the college freshman for 2013.

So make a reasonable guess about how many of those are sending 18, or 56, or even 60 applications.  It’s not very many, is it?  And that same database tells us that the median number of applications per student is still just, well, four. Which seems pretty reasonable.  

Why is this on the front page of the New York Times?  The headline was “Applications by the Dozen, as Anxious Seniors Hedge College Bets.”  And while the article does have quotes from guidance counselors that explain that this is not a good strategy, that wasn’t the headline, was it? Why not have a headline of “A Very Small Number of Anxious Seniors are Sending in Too Many College Applications in a Practice that May Actually Hurt Their Chances of Admission”? The message in the headline is that some seniors are hedging their bets by applying to a lot of colleges. Who doesn’t want to hedge a bet?  That’s good.

But this article is not good. It’s playing on the fears of already anxious students (and as a father with a high school junior, it’s scary to their families too). I expect better from the New York Times.

So, don't worry that we have hordes of students applying to 59 (or 60!) colleges. Worry how to pay for college these days. That's the scary part.