Phi Beta Cons

NSSE Data Kept Under Wraps

Inside Higher Ed reports on the newly released 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement.


Among other intriguing insights, it suggests that e-learners indicate higher levels of engagement, satisfaction, and academic challenge than their on-campus peers.


Especially noteworthy, as IHE comments, is that “what institutions choose to do with the [NSSE] data promises to attract extra attention to this year’s report.”

Perhaps more to the point is what institutions are choosing not to do with the data, that is, the extent to which they are not reporting  the survey results.
Although most higher education leaders believe this survey to be a valuable standardized measure of academic effectiveness across a wide range of higher education institutions, NSSE does not release institution-specific statistics.

The survey’s authors do note, however, that NSSE can advance the higher education improvement “accountability agenda,” and they gingerly offer NSSE assistance in “teaming with institutions to experiment with appropriate ways to publicize their NSSE data and developing common templates for colleges to use.” (As those of us familiar with campuses’ well-honed resistance to transparency and accountability know, such “experimentation” would likely proceed at a glacial pace.)

Campuses get to decide whether to make public the NSSE ratings they receive. Only between one-quarter and one-third of the institutions participating in NSSE choose to release some data, and that portion includes not only those institutions that release all of the data, but also those that cherry pick the statistics they deign to share.
What this shows once again is that most of our higher education institutions are continuing leisurely to take a pass on demonstrating in measurable, concrete and comparable ways how well they are educating students – as they were urged to do in the recently issued report from the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
Charles Miller, chairman of the commission, is right when he says that it is “the duty” of any campus which accepts public funding and participates in NSSE (and, I would add, any other such tools for measuring campus performance) to openly report its data.

Unfortunately it is likely that many institutions will not voluntarily heed this call to duty but instead continue to hide evidence of poor performance from the public and reject comparisons among themselves. (When in my years as a trustee of the State University of New York I urged the open reporting of comparable performance data, the establishment’s common response was that comparisons among institutions are “invidious.”)

Higher educators are thus inviting more government supervision and regulation of their domain, which, once begun, could become heavy-handed indeed.


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