Veterans, Less Engaged but Satisfied

Influential student survey now details impressions and habits of returning servicemembers, as well as more information about individual majors.
November 4, 2010

Military veterans attending four-year colleges in the United State spend more time working at jobs and caring for dependents than their non-veteran classmates, but spend just as much time studying. And while the veterans appear to be less academically engaged than other students — even other undergraduates with comparable demographic traits — they are just as likely to report overall satisfaction with their college experiences. These insights come from the latest National Survey of Student Engagement, released Thursday.

This year’s release marks the first time that the 11-year-old survey, based on the responses of about 362,000 freshmen and seniors at 564 colleges and universities in the United States, specifically recognizes students who were in the armed forces. Therefore, in addition to updated information about the study and classroom habits of all students, the perceptions of veterans on campus are among the assessment tool’s more revealing findings this year.

The veterans are predominantly male and more likely than non-veterans to be "older, enrolled part-time, first-generation students, transfer students, and distance learners." Also, they are twice as likely as non-veterans to report "at least one disability." Finally, veterans are less likely to attend what the survey deems "baccalaureate arts and sciences colleges" and "the most research-intensive doctorate-granting universities" than their peers. Most enroll in medium and large master's degree-granting institutions.

Despite the fact that they spend as much time studying as their non-veteran peers, veterans do not "participate equally in other forms of engagement," even when the surveyors statistically control for certain demographic traits and institutional characteristics. For instance, freshman and senior veterans reported that they are "less engaged with faculty" and perceive "less campus support" than non-veterans. Still, there are no statistically significant differences between veterans and non-veterans in their levels of "overall satisfaction."

"This suggests that veterans have some distinctive needs and that colleges need to make an effort to meet them," Alexander C. McCormick, survey director and professor at Indiana University School of Education, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Veterans make up only 3.4 percent of survey respondents, but this percentage is expected to rise because of the number of veterans taking advantage of the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act. Many college officials are eager to learn more about how to effectively educate this potentially large, and potentially complicated, group of students.

"I am not surprised by the findings as they are consistent with what veterans have shared with us in detailing their experiences on campus," said James Selbe, assistant vice president of lifelong learning at the American Council on Education. "I applaud the authors for encouraging institutions to more effectively engage student veterans in effective educational practices and provide them with supportive environments. This is especially important for first-time, first generation student veterans who are coming from a military environment where learning is focused not on engagement but on demonstrating specific competencies."

Student Engagement by Major

In another change in the survey this year, the 2010 NSSE reveals much more information about what happens to student engagement at the major level. McCormick noted that 80 percent of participating institutions delivered the survey to students online. This allowed institutions to invite all freshmen and seniors to take the survey, instead of inviting a sample group of them to do so as has been the case in the past. McCormick explained that the broader student participation enabled the survey to examine student engagement at the departmental level.

“It’s all about increasing [the survey’s] utility for people like deans, department chairs and faculty members,” said McCormick, acknowledging that the survey has typically been circulated among high-level administrators because others have found it difficult to use in processes like shaping curriculum. “We’re trying to ratchet up its relevance.”

Looking across all disciplines, certain “high-impact practices,” or those that are generally thought to improve student learning and engagement, are unevenly used. For instance, internships or “practicum experiences” are most common among senior journalism and education majors and least common among senior accounting and business majors. Only about 40 percent of senior accounting and business majors hold such field placements. The overall average is 50 percent.

“This surprised me,” McCormick said. “I would have thought that accounting and business majors, specifically, would have had more internships and similar experiences.”

Perhaps less surprising, senior nursing and physical education majors are significantly more likely to engage in “service learning” during their courses than are mathematics and physics majors. Nearly 75 percent of senior nursing and physical education majors do some “service learning.” The overall average is 49 percent.

Some other discipline-specific findings include:

  • Senior biology majors reported that their courses require more memorization and fewer class presentations than other majors. In addition, they were likelier than seniors in other majors to spend over 10 hours per week preparing for class.
  • Senior business administration majors participate in “active and collaborative learning activities,” such as group projects and in-class presentations, more frequently than their peers in other majors.
  • Senior English majors were more engaged in reading and writing activities than were their peers in other disciplines. For example, nearly 70 percent write at least five “mid-length papers,” those between 5 and 19 pages; this is substantially more than most other majors. Also, 93 percent read five or more books as a part of their coursework; this compared to 71 percent, on average, in other majors.
  • About a third of senior psychology majors did research with a faculty member outside of class requirements; this is a higher proportion than in all other majors, which averaged only 19 percent.

On the whole, McCormick said he has yet to see the impact of severe budget cuts to higher education around the country in the survey’s results. He noted that some of these engagement figures are “lagging indicators" -- meaning that student perceptions of the on-the-ground impact of cuts may not appear right away. In addition, some institutions that may have been hit hardest may be “lost in the aggregate” report that NSSE provides about all participating institutions. For a better picture of the recession’s impact on higher education, McCormick said it would be better to look at an individual institution’s survey results.

Unlike the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, which is due out with its latest release next week, NSSE does not release the results for individual institutions to the public. Instead, most NSSE institutions pick and choose what information from their results to release to the public. NSSE does have an arrangement with USA Today to publish the overall NSSE benchmark scores of more than 300 institutions that voluntarily agree to share them each year.

For the most part, however, institutions use their results internally to improve student support services and other resources on campus. Still, some are better than others at sharing the results with their faculty and staff. The report accompanying this year’s survey identifies a number of institutions that are doing unique things with their NSSE data.

For instance, the University of New Brunswick, created its own Student Engagement Wiki, “a collaborative tool and repository of ideas and resources for UNB faculty and staff to share successful strategies for such practices as using group work, encouraging course discussions, and implementing hands-on projects.” Though the wiki is currently password-protected and only available to “anyone involved in instructional activities,” later versions of the tool “may open access for student contributors.”


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