As the Director of Institutional Research, What are some interesting data facts that people are overlooking?

Frank J. Doherty, Ph.D Frank J. Doherty, Ph.D May 24, 2016

I have worked for nearly 30 years at a large state university with more than 20,000 students. An objective of my office is to gather information that will help decision-makers to make wise decisions. We collect a huge amount of quantitative and qualitative data on students. We conduct rather extensive surveys of our freshmen, continuing students, and graduates. The information gained from these students have provided insights into what helps a student to be successful.

Over the years I have found that there are two major things a student wants and needs in order to have an excellent collegiate education. It does not involve getting into the “right” institution or getting a degree that will help you make lots of money or graduating with little or no debt. While these are important, they are not the main ingredients in a great collegiate experience.

Numerous students have told us in surveys and conversations that there are two primary elements of a great experience. The two elements are first, finding your place in a group of like-minded students who enjoy doing similar things, and second, finding a mentor—a staff member, faculty member, advisor or administrator who is willing to help you move in a positive direction either personally and/or professionally. We have overwhelmingly found that a student who finds his or her place and a mentor is “successful” in college.

So how do you find these elements since there is not a college index or scale that rates “finding a place” or “finding a mentor?” You have to look carefully at the materials published by the college you are considering and make a visit to the institution.

Prior to visiting the institution, what data should you look for? Below are some suggestions that point to an institution where you can find friends and mentors. These data should be readily available in the college guides and when you visit the campus

Retention rate after first year. Why retention after the first year? If the retention rate is low (less than 75%) you will find that many students are unsatisfied during their first year or were not academically prepared. Institutions with higher retention rates tend to have happier and more involved students. Most of the students who remain have found their place.

Look at list of clubs and organizations to see if there are several that you are likely to find interesting. It is important to find your place very quickly. I’ve had students tell me that in residence halls a student has two weeks to find a group of friends, and then the newly formed groups do not want outsiders. It’s no surprise that many sororities and fraternities have “rush” during the first month of classes. They know that students are very concerned about making friends and fitting in. During the first month of classes many students are more interested in finding friends than classes. In class they are likely thinking “do these students like me” than “what is this professor talking about?”

Percentage of classes less than 20. Larger classes tend to be less personal, and it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Smaller classes normally mean more personal attention from faculty and other students. It’s not nearly as hard to ask a professor a question or visit his/her office in a smaller class. You will likely have larger classes at the beginning of college, but try not to have too many, especially your first semester.

Existence of a program that helps students discover their interests since more than half of the students change their major at least once. Yes, that’s right, more than half of the students change majors at least once. The university at which I work has a one-credit career and life planning class especially designed for students who do not know what they want to do. My son did not make the “cut” into a major he desired, but with encouragement from me, he took this career and life planning course and found a major that fit him perfectly. He went on to graduate and is doing very well job-wise.

Existence of tutoring programs in math and science and writing. The vast majority of students find math, science, and writing to be challenging at times. My university also has extensive tutoring programs in each of these areas. Many students have found these programs to “save” their college career. Sometimes it’s just one course that is keeping you from being successful in a major, so getting help is essential.

As you may have noticed, these indicators are not the ones normally mentioned in college guides and online “advice” for selecting a college. These indicators are pointing to the personal relationship between the student and college. To me the personal is always more important than the practical. College is more than just job preparation, it’s about learning how to live with yourself and others. It’s about learning to seek help when you need it and learning to get along with many diverse groups of people.

I hope and pray you find this information useful in your college search. I inadvertently stumbled on these actions as an undergraduate student more than 40 years ago. I don’t remember much about the classes I took, but I do remember the wonderful friends and mentor I found. They are still friends and what I learned from them has been invaluable throughout my life.