Skip to content

The National Survey of Student Engagement: An Alternative to College Rankings


In my recent blog post, “How Reliable Are College Rankings“, I highlighted some of the pitfalls of the rankings published by U.S. News and World Report.  As I explained, U.S News bases its rankings on such data as colleges’ financial resources, class sizes, and the percent of faculty with the highest degree in their fields.  While these may be decent indicators of a college’s academic environment, they are all “inputs” — things the college provides for its students.  What about the outputs?  That is, what do students get out of going to a particular college?
While U.S. News collects data on some outputs, such as freshmen retention and graduation rates, many other questions should be asked to assess the outcomes of a college experience.  For example, what are the skills students learn in college?  How engaging and challenging are their courses?  What kinds of relationships do they have with their professors?
Where, exactly, can you find answers to questions like these?  A good place to start is The National Survey for Student Engagement, or NSSE (pronounced “nessie”).  This yearly survey, conducted since 2000, asks students at hundreds of colleges about their “participation in programs and activities that institutions provide for their learning and personal development. The results provide an estimate of how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending college.” (NSSE website).
The NSSE survey also addresses another aspect of college life that U.S. News overlooks: how students spend their time outside of class.  After all, college is (or should be) about more than just going to class and studying.  In fact, I would argue that over the course of a college career, one can learn just as much outside of the classroom as inside it.  Unlike high school, where you’re in school for approximately seven hours a day, five days a week, in college you only attend class for 12-15 hours per week.  While you should be spending some of your “free time” studying, you’ll still have considerably more unscheduled, unstructured time than you did in high school.
To assess how students spend their time, NSSE asks about their involvement in a variety of extracurricular activities such as clubs, sports, fraterntities and sororities, and community service.  Additionally, the survey has questions about students’ participation in activities that are more academically-oriented, such as independent study, research, study abroad, and internships.  It also asks how much time students spend “relaxing and socializing”.
To find out which colleges have participated in the NSSE survey, visit the organization’s website.  There, you can view a list of all the participating colleges (organized by state) and the years they participated, or you can search for a specific college by clicking on the link on the left.  While NSSE does not publish individual colleges’ results on its website, you usually can find these on a participating college’s website.  If you know a college has participated in the survey but can’t find its results, call the admissions office.
As with the rankings in U.S. News and World Report, the data collected by the National Survey of Student Engagement should be just one source of information in your college search.  However, unlike U.S. News and many other rankings, NSSE provides a more holistic picture of the college experience.


Archive by Date

Join our Facebook Group ››
Stay informed about college admissions trends and ask questions of experts who can give you Great College Advice.