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NSSE History

The Introduction and History

The NSSE was conceived in early 1998 and supported by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The NSSE conducted a successful pilot in 1999 that involved more than 75 selected colleges and universities. Approximately 275 colleges and universities participated in the inaugural launch in the spring of 2000. What follows is a summary of work to date, including a discussion of key design points and pilot administration issues as well as a list of remaining tasks. We hope that this information will serve to prompt additional thinking about these issues by the entire academic community.

Background and Rationale

Established methods for assuring quality in higher education contain few external incentives for individual colleges and universities to engage in meaningful quality improvement. This is especially true in the all-important area of enhancing undergraduate education. In part, this is because the conversation about "quality" has been centered on the wrong things. Institutional accreditation processes, despite their recent emphasis on assessing student learning and development, deal largely with resource and process measures. Government oversight as manifested in license requirements and program review mechanisms, in turn, continues to emphasize regulation and procedural compliance. Third-party judgments of "quality" such as media rankings continue to focus on such matters as student selectivity and faculty credentials. None of these gets at the heart of the matter: the investments that institutions make to foster proven instructional practices and the kinds of activities, experiences, and outcomes that their students receive as a result.

As one step toward addressing this condition, The Pew Charitable Trusts convened a working group of higher education leaders in February 1998 to discuss this issue and, more particularly, the kinds of college ranking systems employed by publications like U.S. News and World Report. After a thorough discussion, one conclusion of the Pew working group was that results of a survey of undergraduate quality, if available, could provide colleges and universities-as well as a potential range of stakeholders-with far more valuable information about institutional quality than established measures of reputation.

This proposed data collection initiative, now known as the National Survey of Student Engagement, is designed to query undergraduates directly about their educational experiences. An extensive research literature relates particular classroom activities and specific faculty and peer practices to high-quality undergraduate student outcomes. For example, we know that level of challenge and time on task are positively related to persistence and subsequent success in college. Another conclusion of this body of research is that the degree to which students are engaged in their studies impacts directly on the quality of student learning and their overall educational experience. As such, characteristics of student engagement can serve as a proxy for quality. At least as important, calling attention to the presence or absence of such practices can highlight specific things that individual colleges can do something about and provide information that external constituencies will readily understand. If technically sound and broadly representative, a national survey focused on such practices can begin to focus current quality debates around the right questions rather than falling back upon traditional reputational answers.

Cast in this way, the potential of the NSSE goes well beyond "fixing the rankings." Instead, it offers an alternative tool for gathering information with a wide range of uses and provides an important occasion to re-frame both local and national conversations about collegiate quality. In particular, three possible uses for the data are now envisioned.

First, results are expected to be useful to institutions themselves in improving undergraduate education. For example, the data will be especially useful to colleges and universities in gauging the degree to which they foster practices consistent with particular institutional characteristics and commitments, in order to improve their performance.

Second, results from The College Student Report should be helpful to a range of external stakeholders of higher education, including accrediting bodies and state oversight agencies. For example, the data could be used as part of an assessment of "institutional effectiveness"; component of a self-study or to strengthen benchmarking processes.

Third, if the results from the NSSE project were made public, they might prove interesting to the media, including news magazines and college guides. Between the two extremes of proprietary, institutionally-owned data and publicly-reported data incorporated into the college rankings of the mass circulation magazines, lie many other potential uses for the data. Through substantial discussion in the coming months, the NSSE partners expect that both institutions and stakeholders will weigh in to help clarify the center of this effort.