Sometime I worry that I tend to look at our student data through an overly quantitative lens. I’ll look for significant predictors of specific outcomes or statistically significant differences between two groups. And as trained, I instinctively take the steps necessary to avoid the most common statistical stumbling blocks such as claiming significant when there is none or mistaking correlation for causation. But there are times when this propensity to immediately dive deep into the data means that I miss a critical point that sits in plain view, screaming at the big nosed, bearded face looming over it, “Hey, you idiot! I’m right here!”
One such moment came recently while I was revisiting the simple distribution of seniors’ responses to the question, “Who recommended the CEC (Community Engagement Center) to you?” Student could select as many options as might apply in their case: faculty within my major(s), faculty outside my major(s), my major adviser, my first year adviser, residential life staff, student activities staff, my parents, another student, other administrators, and finally, no one recommended the CEC to me.
As I stared at the percentages under each response option, I began to think that this question might be the type that holds within it an array of discoveries. First, the distribution of responses appeared to reflect a set of values that we communicate to students about 1) the role of the CEC on campus and, 2) the way in which we see our educational efforts as a process of preparing students for life after Augustana. Second, since the CEC often functions as a student gateway to all sorts of other important educational experiences, I began to wonder if students who indicate that no one recommended the CEC to them might also score lower on a host of other experiences that either might follow from an initial interaction with the CEC or might suggest a broader degree of disengagement.
So here is the question followed by the distribution of students’ responses:
Who recommended the CEC (Community Engagement Center) to you? Check as many as might apply.
- Faculty within my major(s) – 41.5%
- My major adviser – 28.1%
- No one recommended the CEC to me – 23.4%
- Another student – 21.4%
- Faculty outside my major(s) – 17%
- Other administrator – 14%
- My first year adviser – 11.4%
- My parents – 9.6%
- Student Activities staff – 5.2%
- Residential Life staff – 1.6%
These numbers alone tell us something pretty interesting. Clearly, recommendations to the CEC tend to come out of students’ academic experience in their major. First, this suggests that these recommendations probably come later in one’s college career – junior or senior year (sophomore year at the earliest). Further, these recommendations rarely come from the co-curricular side of the student experience. Thus, it appears that in general we conceive of the role of the CEC as either, a) a means of resolving an absence of post-graduate career purpose (students in their later years who still don’t seem to know what they want to do after college or students who in the midst of searching for a career plan “B”), or, b) a support service to help students bundle the totality of their college experience in preparation for the job or grad school search. Either way, the role we see for the CEC seems more retroactive than proactive. It doesn’t appear that we have generally thought of the CEC as a students’ compass with which they might plot out – from the moment they arrive on campus – their college experience in a way that allows them to move forward with intentionality. Nor do we appear to have thought much about linking our students’ co-curricular experiences – one of Augustana’s true, albeit often under-appreciated strengths – with the role of the CEC. All of this doesn’t seem to comport with our belief that a liberal arts college experience is holistic, developmental, and fully integrated; one that starts, from the very beginning, with the end in mind, and one that believes the whole must be greater than the sum of the parts.
Now there may be lots of lengthy explanations for this particular distribution of responses; some of them might even be entirely legitimate. But it doesn’t change the nature of the values that we appear to be expressing – or not expressing – as portrayed through student-reported experiences. In addition, 23.4% of our seniors indicated that no one recommended them to the CEC. Given the array of services that originate out of the CEC, I’d suggest that we would like that number to be much lower than effectively one-quarter of a graduating class.
Admittedly, there were some interesting anomalies in the data and caveats that we should consider. A few students indicated that no one recommended the CEC to them AND indicated that another student recommended the CEC to them. And it was during this cohort of students’ career at Augustana that the CVR (Center for Vocational Reflection) merged with a variety of other services including Career Services to create the CEC – making it possible that some students might not have considered their earlier recommendations to the CVR when responding to this question. But even in the presence of these caveats, we should be willing to ask ourselves whether our students’ experience mirrors the values that we purport to hold.
The other aspect of this particular question that I find interesting is the degree to which the difference in responses to this question (no one recommended the CEC to me vs. someone recommended the CEC to me) might mask statistically significant differences on many other questions in the senior survey. Now I’m not claiming that there is a direct relationship between this question and all of the others on which student responses also differed. However, it seems to me highly possible that, like many other situations in life where one unique opportunity correlates with or begets a series of other opportunities that ultimately separates a person from the pack, interaction with the CEC may indeed open up pathways and ways of thinking about the college experience in the same way that color changes the fundamental nature of black and white film.
It turns out that students who said no one recommended the CEC to them differed significantly (in a statistical sense) on many items on the senior survey that involve the advising experience, the broader curricular experience, and the co-curricular experience. Next week I’ll talk more about what we might learn from this array of differences.
Make it a good day,