Emory Report
January 18, 2005
Volume 58, Number 15


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January 18, 2005
NSSE survey places Oxford high in student rankings

BY eric rangus

In 2002, when Oxford College first participated in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a study that measures student educational experiences at the institutions that take part, it ranked in the 90th percentile in three of the survey’s five benchmarks.

That wasn’t good enough.

Oxford studied the results, crunched the numbers and looked for ways to improve. Focus groups of students were formed, and their responses informed a strong collegewide effort to improve on the rankings.

Oxford learned of the fruits of this labor in late 2004. When the biennial study’s newest edition was released, the college ranked in 90th percentile in all five benchmarks—Level of Academic Challenge, Active and Collaborative Learning, Student-Faculty Interaction, Enriching Educational Experiences and Supportive Campus Environment.

“To be in the 90th percentile—or top 10 percent—is great,” said Kent Linville, Oxford’s dean of academic affairs. “The schools who administer this test either think they’re good or they want to be better, and I think we fall into both categories.”

Administered by Indiana University, NSSE is a tool that provides competitive standards for determining how effectively colleges contribute to learning. In 2004, 163,000 students from 472 national colleges and universities took part, including Oxford.

Linville said NSSE offers an alternative to other grading systems such as the rankings in U.S. News & World Report, which ranks universities using criteria such as the quality of the entering class.

“Of course a place like Oxford isn’t into that,” he said. “We’re much more value added. What happens between the time you come in and the time you leave is what we take to provide evidence for the potency of the program.”

That’s also what NSSE measures with questions that ask whether students must make in-class presentations or if they’ve worked with a faculty member on a research project outside of class, or participated in a community project as part of a class assignment.

When Oxford first took part in 2002, it performed well but finished out of the top 10 percent in two benchmarks—active and collaborative learning and supportive campus environment.

“We hire, retain and reward faculty for their effectiveness with students, both in the classroom and participating in the life of the community and as academic advisers,” Linville said. “We have extensive tutoring programs and supplemental instruction programs.”

Despite all this, Oxford fell short on “supportive campus environment.” In response, Oxford approached Daniel Teodorescu, director of institutional planning and research on the Atlanta campus, for help and working with a discussion facilitator hired from outside the University, he conducted focus-group discussions with students.

Turns out that Oxford students saw “supportive campus environment” in much broader terms. Students without cars felt isolated on campus, and there was a perception that weekend activities were minimal. In response, Campus Life ramped up advertising for on-campus programming—activities on the Oxford campus were plentiful, but not a lot of students knew about them. Also, shuttle service to the Atlanta campus was increased from one trip a day to two.

Regarding the active and collaborative learning benchmark, Linville simply made the results known to Oxford faculty, who as a whole pride themselves on interacting with students.

All that effort worked as Oxford zoomed into the top 10 percent across the board. Exactly where Oxford ranks among its peers is unknown; NSSE does not use 100-point scales, and participating schools are not obligated to release data. Oxford is part of the minority that does.

“The NSSE survey confirms empirically what we know anecdotally: Oxford changes lives,” said Dean Dana Greene. “The survey is the beginning of an attempt to systematically document what happens to students, both cognitively and affectively, in this transformative learning environment. I would wager that if we were to survey our alumni we would have additional testimony of Oxford’s potential to help students grow and flourish.”

“There are a lot of little schools that want bragging rights,” said Linville, noting that many of the top-ranked schools in U.S. News do not participate in NSSE. “This is a professionally developed, impartial assessment of collegiate quality. It doesn’t have anything to do with college presidents or anything else to do with reputation.”

For Oxford, the NSSE results have applications beyond bragging. Some of the lessons learned and themes covered by Oxford’s NSSE experience are being incorporated into the college’s strategic planning, and Linville said the next goal is to remain in the 90th percentile for the 2006 survey.