A Culture of Assessment

Hofstra U. students did not think much of the services and community offered them, until the institution discovered and responded to their concerns via a cycle of surveys.
April 23, 2009

They say that acknowledging a problem is the first step toward accepting it. For Hofstra University, it is also an essential step toward fixing the problem; that is what its "culture of assessment" is all about.

The most powerful example of the university's approach can be seen in its five-year-old effort to change its student services operation to reflect its changing demographics. For much of its existence, Hofstra was known primarily as a commuter institution for students within driving distance of its Long Island campus. Changing that perception has taken some serious work, both in understanding how students view the university and in changing campus policies and approaches as a result.

Since 2004, the university has surveyed its students when they enter, throughout their undergraduate careers, and up to five years after they have graduated. Quantitative measurements of student satisfaction with academic and other services are taken at multiple points in time to help administrators judge the effectiveness of institutional changes in “real time.”

When the survey was first used, in 2004, undergraduates reported having a low “overall satisfaction” with their student experience; lacking a substantial “sense of campus community"; and feeling that they only somewhat “belong[ed] at Hofstra.” To look at some specific data, all undergraduates rated the “sense of campus community” at Hofstra a 2.77, on a scale from 1 to 5. Only 25 percent of students rated the “community” a 4 or 5.

“There was a sense that when this began that, in a whole host of areas from our admission profile to retention, we could do a lot better than we had been doing,” said Herman Berliner, Hofstra’s provost. “The statistics, initially, were not spectacular. If you want your overall student experience to be more positive, you first need to have your students perceive of it as positive. You want them to think, ‘This is everything that a college experience should be.’ ”

The numbers, taken together and combined with qualitative comments from focus groups of students and instructors, amounted to a call to arms for Hofstra administrators, leading Berliner and others to believe that changes were needed in the university’s experience for incoming students.

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“Students used to come in at orientation, put together a program of courses, and that’s the one they would follow for the year,” said Berliner, acknowledging this did not lend itself to much of an on-campus community.

The university has made numerous adjustments based on the information it has gathered. It now has more than 20 first-year clusters, or groups of 2 to 3 courses tied together by an overarching academic theme. In addition, incoming students are offered the opportunity to enroll in any of more than 40 small seminar courses with senior university professors -- a privilege previously reserved for Hofstra's juniors and seniors. Some of these courses take advantage of the institution’s proximity to New York City and offer course-related trips to cultural events there.

Professors who are passionate about specific topics teach these courses and clusters, Berliner said, giving them a very “passionate” and “nurturing” feel. Students are not required to take any of these classes; however, almost all of them do meet Hofstra general education distribution requirements, making them popular among incoming students. Students who sign up for themed clusters also have the opportunity to live in similarly themed living-learning communities.

Major changes were also made to Hofstra’s student services division as a result of the survey data. Sandra Johnson, vice president for student affairs, said it has allowed the institution to discover overlaps and gaps among the responsibilities of university offices, and streamline their response to students.

For example, the university recently shifted its entire academic advising unit to student services. Before the move, students without declared majors were handled by a full-time advising staff, and those with majors were handed by faculty members. Johnson acknowledged that this would present challenges for students who decided to switch concentrations multiples times, as happens with many students.

Now, a full-time adviser is assigned to every student for their entire college career. These individuals work in conjunction with the academic departments' faculty advisers in order to provide them with a more complete picture of each student.

In other changes, an Office of Multicultural & International Student Programs compressed the efforts of many different departments into one office, handling all of the university’s cultural celebrations and activities through the year. Also, full-time offices supporting disabled and transfer students were made available to assist them year-round instead of just at the start of the academic year.

Berliner believes these changes to Hofstra's academic structure and student affairs bolstered the institution's low student satisfaction numbers. Quantitatively, the “sense of campus community” has increased by .45 on the survey, to 3.22 out of 5. About 42 percent of students now rate the “community” a 4 or 5.

“If you ask any faculty, they couldn’t recite the numbers, but they’ll tell you we’re doing a better job,” Berliner said. "There are more choices and support than ever before. They can sense it from talking to students.”

Some administrators indicate the changes at Hofstra have only just begun, thanks to its ongoing internal assessments.

“Looking at what you’re doing all the time and finding ways to get better, that’s part of the culture of assessment,” Johnson said. “We don’t sit back and say, ‘Wow, look at it! We got wonderful feedback from our students during welcoming week. Let’s just do that.’ No, we meet our goals we set out to and then attempt to do them one better.”


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