It is common to hear that college is about more than classes. At the end of four (or five, or six) years, successful students will have built relationships with a network that will support them for decades, gained valuable skills in areas like problem-solving and teamwork, figured out the notion of multitasking, and generally had to take responsibility for their own day and the hours within it.
Don’t get me wrong, college classes are important. But they aren’t the end all-be all of the postsecondary experience. Personally, I spent four years at the University of Virginia, the top public university in the nation. I took a lot of interesting and engaging courses, particularly in the fields of government and communications. But my real college experience came from my internships on Capitol Hill and my tenure at The Cavalier Daily, U.Va.’s independent student newspaper. As managing editor of The Cavalier Daily, I worked 60-80 hours per week (for no college credit and no pay), managed a staff of nearly 150 volunteers, and put out a daily newspaper (usually 16 pages a day) that boasted an operating budget of nearly $500,000 generated exclusively from advertising revenue. That was the real education, and The CD provided me writing, management, thinking, and leadership skills that simply could not have been captured elsewhere, at least not for the average 21-year-old.
Today’s USA Today commits an entire page to the National Survey of Student Engagement (http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-11-10-nsseonline_what-is-nsse_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip) and the role it places in improving the quality of higher education. According to our nation’s paper of record, USA Today and NSSE “aim to provide new tools and information to help college-bound students and their families assess the quality of undergraduate experience at the schools they’re considering.” Nearly 400 four-year colleges and universities are participating in the experiment.
How are they doing it? Schools are looking at how they deal with helping students transition into postsecondary education, how they connect with students, and how they provide alternative learning experiences such as community service, study abroad, and internships.
Eduflack’s not sure what USA Today’s long-term goals are with NSSE, but personally, I wish all 4,000 of our postsecondary institutions would sign on and become part of the process. A 10% sample is a good start, particularly if it is the right 10%. But the issues and questions posed by NSSE are important for educated and interested families to consider when making postsecondary choices.
For decades now, students have pored over the US News & World Report rankings and books such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges to help make informed choices about college. Princeton Review and others have done a good job of breaking colleges down into interesting subsets, at least showing students the top institutions in key categories. Parents have kept a watchful eye on things like the top party schools, hoping to steer their kids away from the best places to “enjoy themselves.” But it is useful to know how all colleges compare, not just the creme of the crop.
When Eduflack was making the college decision, it was between U.Va. and Princeton. Both schools were equidistant from my high school in West Virginia, so mileage from home wasn’t a factor. At the end of the day, U.Va. felt right. There was just something about standing on the Grounds, the history of Thomas Jefferson, and the general feel of Charlottesville that spoke to me. I got far less of that feeling from the ivy in central New Jersey.
And that was before I knew about the college newspaper and the opportunities it would provide. That would be before an American Government term paper on healthcare reform led me to an internship on Capitol Hill. That was before I knew the true value and impact of an education from Mr. Jefferson’s University. That was before I knew much of what a tool like NSSE could have told me.
If NSSE, in partnership with USA Today, can give today’s high school students just part of that glimpse of college life — that look beyond student-teacher ratios, majors, and percentage of kids who go on to law/grad school — then it can make a significant contribution to guiding the next generation into postsecondary education. Making a decision about college is hard. The more information you have, the more educated a decision you can make. If we want college to be a pathway to life success, we need to equip our student decisionmakers with the full picture of the college experience. From the cheap seats, NSSE moves us just a little closer to that reality.