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A small group of four mature adult students sit together at a long desk as they study with one another. They have textbooks and laptops out in front of them as they take notes and talk.

New Student Voice findings and analysis shed light on 5,025 two- and four-year students’ academic experiences, including what they say would boost their academic success. Encouraging faculty members to limit high-stakes exams, or those counting for 40 percent or more of a course grade, is a top response.

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Mohamed Diallo, a rising junior at Yale University, is pursuing a double major in global affairs and history as well as a certificate—something like a minor—in computer science. How does he rate the quality of his education so far? A solid four on a scale of one to five, or “really good.”

The pros: Diallo, a first-generation student who’s not yet set on a specific career path, says his education so far has made him more “intellectually curious” and has “laid a really good foundation for me to succeed.”

“It’s the liberal arts education that I can really learn to appreciate,” he adds. “For the past few semesters, I was able to take a wide range of classes. And that’s valuable to me in the long run.”

As for cons, Diallo touches on them in the second half of that last sentence: “… even though a lot of these classes are not things that are anything applying towards my career right now.” Translation: He’d appreciate more of an emphasis across disciplines and instructors on connecting course content to real-world issues and applications.

“That’s something that I highly value when looking for my courses,” Diallo explains, endorsing a global development course in which he learned not only econometrics but the practical skill of writing policy reports, for example.

Diallo is just one of the 5,025 two- and four-year students who completed Inside Higher Ed and Generation Lab’s annual Student Voice survey. Some of his thoughts, which he shared in a recent interview, align with his peers’ responses to parallel survey questions; others diverge from popular responses. Read on for additional findings from and analysis of the survey’s academic life portion.


Nearly three in 10 respondents (28 percent) to Inside Higher Ed’s new annual Student Voice survey, fielded in May in partnership with Generation Lab, attend two-year institutions, and closer to four in 10 (37 percent) are post-traditional students, meaning they attend two-year institutions and/or are 25 or older. The 5,025-student sample is nationally representative. The survey’s margin of error is 1.4 percent.

Initial highlights from the full survey are here, and the full data set, with interactive visualizations, is available here. In addition to questions about academic life, the main annual survey asked questions on health and wellness, the college experience, and preparation for life after college. Look for additional findings and analysis in the coming weeks and months.

More on Education Quality

About three in four Student Voice respondents rate the quality of education they’re receiving in college as good (46 percent) or excellent (27 percent), with only 2 percent rating it as poor. Students at private nonprofit institutions are especially likely to say that their education quality is excellent, compared to those at publics. This difference can’t be attributed to institution size or even two-year or four-year classification, as community college students are somewhat more likely than four-year students over all to rate their education quality as excellent (30 percent versus 25 percent, respectively).

By region, students in New England are most likely to rate their education quality as excellent (43 percent) and students in the far West are least likely (15 percent).

Looking at student characteristics, family income appears to factor in here, with the wealthiest students in the survey (a family income exceeding $200,000) most likely to rate their education quality as excellent (37 percent). Gender, race and political orientation don’t appear to drive perceptions of educational quality, though students 25 and older are more likely than their younger counterparts to rate their educational quality as excellent (32 percent versus 25 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds).

Continuing-generation students are slightly more likely (75 percent) to rate their educational quality as good or excellent than are first-generation students (70 percent). Same for students taking a typical course load (75 percent rate their educational quality as good or excellent) relative to those taking more or less than the typical load for their institution (69 percent in each case).

Bigger gaps emerge when looking at course modality: Three in four (76 percent) students taking all their classes in person say their educational quality is good or excellent, compared to two in three (67 percent) students taking all their classes online. Students taking a mix of both in-person and online classes split that difference (72 percent).

That students at private nonprofit institutions are so likely to say their educational quality is excellent surprises Flower Darby, for whom educational quality boils down to instructional effectiveness. Darby, associate director of the Teaching for Learning Center at the University of Missouri at Columbia, has nothing against private nonprofit institutions, in particular, but she explains that higher education historically underemphasizes the practice of teaching—four-year institutions (public or private) most of all.

“I understand the value of research and scholarship, and I know that it can enhance and feed into better teaching,” she says of faculty duties beyond teaching at four-year colleges and universities (versus community colleges, where teaching is a primary focus). “But what the students are experiencing on a day-to-day basis, whether they’re in person or online, is the teaching.”

Darby explains that students’ residential experiences, where applicable, and other supports and services matter—just not as much as instructional effectiveness. Not all her peers across higher ed may think of educational quality in this way, she says, but there is a growing emphasis on how instructors impact the student experience of quality. In any case, she notes, “Students are definitely thinking about quality in this way.”

Jonathan GS Koppell, president of Montclair State University, says that in addition to seeing quality through the lens of instructional effectiveness, survey respondents’ overall high marks on educational quality—public or private, two-year or four-year institution—have implications for the tenor of current national conversations about college value. A related recent flash survey from Student Voice detailed current students’ thoughts on college value, affordability and the botched rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The vast majority of students feel they are benefiting from the skills and knowledge they are acquiring, and that is before you factor in the clear return on investment a degree provides in one’s personal and professional life after college. Instead of allowing those on the outside to devalue what higher education provides based on their own assumptions about what students want and what they are getting, we should listen to students.”

—Jonathan GS Koppell, Montclair State University

Boosting Academic Success From Within the Classroom

As for what institutional academic-focused actions would most boost their academic success, students’ No. 1 choice from a long list of options is encouraging faculty members to limit high-stakes exams, or those counting for 40 percent or more of a course grade. By institution type, this appears to be more of a priority for students at large institutions (48 percent of that subgroup) than small institutions (39 percent), and for four-year students (49 percent) relative to two-year students (37 percent).

Limiting high-stakes exams also seems to be more popular among Democrats (49 percent) than among Republicans (39 percent), by student political leaning. By major racial group, white (48 percent), Asian American and Pacific Islander (47 percent), and Hispanic (44 percent) students are more likely to choose this than Black students (39 percent). Students 25 and older are less likely than their younger peers to want this, meanwhile, by age (36 percent versus 48 percent, respectively).

Beyond limiting high-stakes exams, many students—like Diallo—say they think it would make an academic impact if professors could help them better connect what they’re learning in class to issues outside the classroom and/or to their career plans (40 percent of the sample over all). This, too, is more of an apparent priority for students at large institutions (42 percent) than small ones (32 percent), students at four-year institutions (43 percent) relative to those at two-year institutions (33 percent), and students 18 to 24 (42 percent) relative to those 25 or older (31 percent).

Another popular choice: encouraging professors to get to know students better. About a third of the sample over all (35 percent) believes this would help their success, but closer to half of students at private nonprofits do (45 percent). Relatively more four-year students (38 percent) than two-year students (28 percent) choose this, as well.

By individual student characteristics, AAPI students are especially likely (40 percent) to say they want professors to get to know students better, as are younger students relative to older students (38 percent versus 24 percent, respectively).

Other wants include deadline flexibility, changes to exam schedules and encouragement of study groups.

Despite its relative popularity among his fellow survey respondents, Diallo says he’s not keen on limiting high-stakes exams, as he prefers to confine exam stress to the end of a term, when there’s time built into the academic calendar to study. He does support the promotion of study groups and recalls how much he appreciated when an economics professor helped students form study groups in a class in which he knew few others.

Diallo also likes the idea of encouraging professors to get to know their students better, beyond office hours and in ways that could help students build their networks within a given field. Students might even help professors better understand what they’re interested in learning, and why: “We could provide a lot of support to them as well.”

Karen Cangialosi, director of the Every Learner Everywhere Network, part of the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education’s (WICHE) Cooperative for Educational Technologies, says the results are unsurprising in that “high-stakes exams and testing work counter to the project of learning, as many have been writing about for years”—Diallo’s comments notwithstanding.

Additionally, Cangialosi says, “students want to see more relevance in what they are studying. They want to change the world. My students used to tell me that in almost every class.”

Darby’s of the same mind. Half of students asking for fewer high-stakes exams is compelling evidence against their widespread use in assessing student learning, she says. And jumping ahead to the survey’s findings on health and wellness (the topic of future Student Voice reporting), many students link high-stakes exams to mental health concerns, she notes. Replacing exams with more unit tests does not sacrifice rigor but can reduce student anxiety (although high-pressure exam experiences could benefit students preparing for consequential certificate or entrance exams in their fields).

That’s a teaching issue. There is no reason to continue with high-stakes exams in most classes. Now there’s eight or 12 [assessments] instead of two or three that are make-or-break.”

—Flower Darby, University of Missouri at Columbia

Ultimately, Darby says, curbing high-stakes exams is a “very low-hanging fruit” when it comes to student success, in that it’s not complex or costly to implement. “I don’t want to assume that every faculty [member] can devote tons of time into improving their teaching or making changes in their classes. But this one is doable and would have a significant impact on student well-being.”

Darby adds that pedagogical research supports much of the other student wants, as applicability or relevance of course content boosts intrinsic motivation to learn, structure coupled with some flexibility around deadlines helps students feel supported and empathized with, fostering a sense of belonging among students via study groups promotes student success, and so on.

On study groups, for instance, Darby says, “The fact that students are asking for that is, again, to me, a relatively low-hanging fruit. Even learning management systems like Canvas can literally create groups with the click of a button. And what it does is enhance community among students, which is critically important to their learning and success.”

Additional Ways to Boost Student Success

Asked which additional student experience–focused institutional actions would best help promote their academic success, more than half of students (55 percent) say making tuition more affordable so they can better balance academics, finances and work. This is relatively consistent across family income levels, suggesting that students from a range of backgrounds may struggle to afford college in ways that impact their academics. Students at public and private nonprofit institutions are about as likely to say this, but relatively more four-year (59 percent) than two-year (44 percent) students do. By region, students in the far West (65 percent) and Rocky Mountains (71 percent) are most likely want to make tuition more affordable in the interest of their academic success.

Another popular option, also with financial implications, is creating more opportunities for paid on-campus work, including internships or leadership opportunities in the student’s field of interest (49 percent). Fewer students 25 and older (35 percent) want this than do those 18 to 24 (52 percent), however. But by institution type, boosting opportunities for paid campus is work is more popular among students at four-year institutions than among students at two-year institutions (52 percent versus 41 percent, respectively).

Other popular options for college experiences that students say could impact academic success are promoting opportunities for social connection and building a sense of belonging (32 percent) and introducing more mental health initiatives (30 percent). Rates for both are relatively consistent across institution types and student demographics, but boosting mental health offerings is especially popular among nonbinary students in the survey (53 percent).

Creating more research opportunities for undergraduates is more popular among students at private nonprofits (42 percent) than publics (29 percent) and four-year students (34 percent) than two-year students (22 percent).

Doing more to promote diversity, equity and inclusion and making the campus more welcoming for all was selected by about two in 10 (21 percent) students over all but 50 percent of nonbinary students, 32 percent of Black students and 29 percent of AAPI students, in particular, meaning that students’ experiences with campus climate and that climate’s bearing on their academic success vary by background. By political leaning, 30 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of Republicans say more DEI efforts would promote their academic success.

Lastly, despite chat bots being a main use of AI on many campuses, according to Inside Higher Ed/Hanover Research’s 2024 surveys of presidents and provosts, few students prioritize their expansion as a way to boost academic success, with just about one in 10 (12 percent) of students choosing this.

Diallo, at Yale, puts a high value on inviting more guest speakers and lecturers and on expanding mental health initiatives, with the former linking back to his preference for real-world applications of what he’s learning: “You’re learning about potential career opportunities or new insights that they might have that the professor might not.” On mental health initiatives, Diallo says he’s not fully aware of the mental health initiatives that currently exist on campus and he’s interested in hearing more about how things like stress reduction could promote his academic success and overall growth.

“The past two semesters have been really stressful for me since I’m pursuing a double major,” he adds.

Darby, meanwhile, tends to get “super philosophical” regarding students’ affordability concerns, which speaks to “the defunding of education at the state level. And that goes directly against the vision for this democracy laid out by the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying that a functioning democracy requires an educated citizenry and free access to education was a foundational pillar of this country. So when I look at what’s happening with our political situation, and I think about the expense of higher education because of defunding, I see some connections there.”

The high cost of education is such a huge barrier to so many students and would-be students. It gets worse all of the time. Our continual defunding of public education has exacted huge costs on our students and on our society as a whole.”

—Karen Cangialosi, Every Learner Everywhere

Like Darby, Cangialosi links the student mental health crisis to stress associated with grades—as well as high costs associated with tuition and fees. And so, like Koppell, the Montclair State president, she says these findings have implications for national conversations about college value, namely that “we need to continue to communicate the public value of education over just viewing it as personal gain for students.”

Students on Teaching Formats and Practices

As for which class formats and teaching practices students say most help them learn and retain information (they could pick two), the top choices are interactive lecture, meaning a class that’s still professor-led but punctuated with active learning strategies (44 percent). That’s above both traditional, sage-on-the-stage–type lectures (25 percent) and active learning–intensive courses in which the professor is mostly a facilitator to learning instead of a lecturer (20 percent). This corresponds with previous Student Voice survey findings from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse on this topic, which indicated that students preferred interactive lectures over other options.

In the new survey, relatively more men (29 percent) express a preference for traditional lecture than women (22 percent) or nonbinary students (24 percent).

About a quarter of students each also prioritize case studies that connect course concepts to real-world problems (23 percent). Students are less enthusiastic about other active-learning strategies, like minute papers or exit tickets and quick polls and surveys (8 percent each), so they may be somewhat agnostic about specific interactive strategies or looking for more innovative strategies than these commonly used ones.

All these results are relatively consistent across institution types and student demographics in terms of what students prioritize. However, students taking all their classes online are less likely than the sample over all to select interactive lectures (35 percent), as are students with a learning disability (33 percent) and those with a physical disability (27 percent).

The findings make sense to Diallo, who enjoys case studies because they help make course content relevant; as one example, he says he and peers in a global development course retraced the steps of researchers who completed a global development study. As for class format, he recalls a popular education studies professor who caught him off guard and eventually won him over with “innovative” practices that kept students engaged, like asking them to knit in the middle of one meeting (yes, knit, with yarn, etc.).

Even though [the] lectures were recorded and not mandatory, a lot of us still attended due to the interactive nature of [the class] and really loved what [the professor] was doing. She also encouraged us to write and share, amongst the 100-person lecture room, our experiences with education. I found the interactive nature of it to be really helpful … It really helps to have little five- to ten-minute breaks in the lecture.”

—Mohamed Diallo, Yale University

Darby finds the plurality’s preference for interactive lectures “really encouraging,” in that it signals students (like educational researchers) understand that active learning boosts their engagement and performance. Plus, she says, from a faculty standpoint, “classes that are entirely active learning can also be very, very effective but are a huge lift.” Translation: interactive lecture is another “very low-hanging fruit.”

One note: “If it’s an in-person class, you do have to cut a little bit of content, reduce slides,” she says. “But there is abundant evidence to show that that helps students learn more effectively … A little goes a long way.”

Students on Course Modality

The majority (58 percent) of student respondents say in-person/face-to-face is preferred, with relatively more four-year (62 percent) than two-year (49 percent) students saying so. By institution type, nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) of students at private nonprofits say they prefer face-to-face, compared to closer to five in 10 (54 percent) at public nonprofits. By region, students in New England (70 percent) are especially likely to prefer face-to-face and students in the Southwest (46 percent) are least likely.

How does this compare to administrators’ views of what students want? In Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research’s survey of provosts this year, nearly six in 10 (56 percent) provosts said that based on enrollment data, students tend to prefer in-person courses over online or hybrid courses when both are offered, with chief academic officers at private institutions being especially likely to say this. The strong preference for face-to-face conflicts with some other data, however, including a recent report by Tyton Partners finding that just 29 percent of students prefer face-to-face instruction. (Student Voice survey respondents were able to pick up to two choices.)

By course format, nearly three in four Student Voice respondents (74 percent) taking all their courses in person prefer face-to-face instruction, followed by blended courses (23 percent). Among students taking all their courses online, more than half (54 percent) prefer online, asynchronous instruction, followed by in-person (23 percent). Among respondents taking a mix of online and in-person courses, just over half (52 percent) prefer in-person, followed by hybrid (29 percent).

Older students express much less of a preference for face-to-face instruction than do those age 24 or younger, with a plurality of older students preferring online, asynchronous classes.

Diallo says he mostly prefers in-person courses, as he believes he learns best this way. He’s also interested in HyFlex, though, so that he has options as to how to participate when and if other obligations arise.

Darby, meanwhile, says she didn’t anticipate just how many students would prefer in-person instruction and finds it somewhat “affirming” that traditional-age students are particularly interested. She wonders whether that’s “influenced or reinforced by their pandemic education experience. Maybe some realized that ‘in-person is good and might support me better.’”

As for asynchronous, online courses being the second-most-preferred format over all, Darby says many institutions are expanding these course offerings, “and I would argue that it increases access and is a more equity-focused approach, because it does make it possible for students who would not otherwise be able to earn that degree due to other obligations to earn that credential.” Still, Darby emphasizes quality—including instructional effectiveness—as these courses proliferate. This also points back to the findings on educational quality by course modality, in which students taking all their courses in person are significantly more likely than those taking all their courses online to rate their educational quality as good or excellent.

“Increasing access to college is one thing, but we need to be doing whatever we can to increase completion of online classes. And again, for me, that’s a teaching and learning challenge that we can address. We know what works.”

Cangialosi says the response pattern “screams out about how much students want direct engagement with faculty and peers. People learn in social environments. Students, like other people, crave social connections in real life, and learning is enhanced just by the presence of others learning with you.”

Interaction can be online in synchronous formats when face-to-face isn’t possible or when it’s too expensive, she adds, “but it isn’t usually preferable. The biggest benefits of online education are access, affordability for some programs, and flexibility, which students need.”

Navigating AI

As for whether students have a clear sense of when, how and whether to use generative artificial intelligence to help with their coursework, relatively few students (19 percent) say no. The largest shares of students attribute their savvy to individual faculty members, with about a third each saying some or all of their professors had addressed the issue in class (31 percent) and some or all of their professors had included a policy on this in their syllabi (29 percent). About a quarter of students say they’ve researched the issue themselves. They are less likely (16 percent) to attribute their knowledge to their institution publishing a policy—a finding that’s consistent with Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research’s annual surveys of presidents and provosts, in which about the same share of each group said their institutions had published an AI policy involving teaching and research.

Less than one in 10 students in this Student Voice survey say their institution offered information sessions or related trainings on this. That’s even as prior Student Voice survey data suggest students are eager for AI training, particularly as it relates to their future careers.

By age, in this most recent survey, students over 25 are less likely than younger peers to attribute their knowledge on using generative AI for academic work to professors and more likely to say that they researched it themselves. Students at public institutions are also more likely than those at private nonprofits to say they don’t know how, when or whether to use generative AI for coursework (21 percent versus 11 percent, respectively, a significant gap). Community college students are also more likely to say they lack this knowledge than four-year students (24 percent versus 17 percent, respectively).

Diallo says he does have a “good grasp” of when, how or whether to use generative AI for academic work, much of it intuitive, he says, comparing writing a paper with generative AI to any other kind of plagiarism. Beyond this, he says Yale has posted guidelines for this around campus and individual professors have addressed it in their course syllabi. Still, Diallo says, he’s aware how important prompt engineering is in using generative AI effectively and he’s never explicitly been taught best practices to that end.

Darby’s not surprised by how many students say they’re not getting key guidance on generative AI at the institutional level, but she ventures that many colleges and universities are working on this issue this summer, to provide students more clarity come fall. More encouraging, however, is the share of students who say their professors are effectively addressing this issue, through syllabi or direct instruction: “That’s different than what I would have predicted, quite frankly, and I think that’s different than it would have been a year ago. So that’s great.”

She adds that there’s a delicate balance to be struck between institutional stances on one hand and pedagogy and academic freedom on the other, even as many “professors are looking for more of that institutional guidance.”

Final Thoughts

Looking at the data as whole, Cangialosi says, “I firmly believe that the burden is on those of us claiming to want reform in higher education to find ways to, No. 1, substantially lower the cost of education; No. 2, dramatically transform or get rid of grading as it is normally done; and No. 3, help guide students to direct their own path of learning towards issues that are relevant to them and their local, regional and global communities.”

Koppell adds, “The results show that high-quality academic experiences on campuses around the country are appreciated and, furthermore, that students have ideas about how we can further improve. We should pay attention to it all.”

Tell us about how a student experience–related effort at your institution has impacted students’ academic success.

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