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Hepner Hall at San Diego State University on a sunny day

Campus leaders at San Diego State used student feedback to refer learners to resources and optimize offerings in the residence halls.

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Anaheim, Calif.—Research has found that moving away to college and living in the dorms can be a positive and important experience for students at residential campuses in their retention, engagement and feelings of connection to the institution.  

Campus leaders at San Diego State University, part of the California State University system, built a residential living survey to improve student experience, collect data for strategic planning and provide immediate responses to concerns.

The initiative, shared at NASPA’s Conferences on Student Success in Higher Education in Anaheim, Calif., by SDSU administrators and staff, helped identify students who needed additional support and enhance operational practices.

Getting a pulse: San Diego State created a two-year residency requirement for incoming students starting in fall 2019 with the hopes of improving student success metrics for first- and second-year students.

A student survey launched in fall 2023 helped leaders understand how students use resources, gaining insight into their satisfaction with the residential experience and aiding in anticipate future needs for the campus.

The survey gauges students’ experiences with the physical environment, their sense of belonging and their health and connection to the university. SDSU professionals and student workers provided feedback during survey development.

The survey was administered four times during the year via Qualtrics and distributed by email and other digital communications. Any SDSU student who lived on campus could participate. Questions were both closed and open in nature, allowing students to share the why behind their experiences.

Direct from learners: Across the four months the survey was open (October, December, February and April), over 1,500 students participated, with the highest response rate in October (762) and lowest in April (280). Around 100 students responded in all four periods.

Data analysis across the four months showed:

  • More than 60 percent of students said they were satisfied with their on-campus living experience. 
  • Among areas of satisfaction, 55 percent were satisfied with maintenance and amenities and 70 percent were satisfied with their roommate. 
  • Just under two-thirds (64 percent) said they felt a sense of belonging in the university community. 
  • Fewer than half (45 percent) of students said they had good mental health, and half said they had good physical health.

Follow-up: Based on student responses, SDSU staff employed a variety of measures to enhance the student experience, including direct connections to staff, additional communication about available resources and creating more peer conflict resolution and connection supports.

One of the survey questions allowed students to indicate if they wanted a staff member to reach out about specific problems, such as maintenance, roommate conflicts, mental or physical health, or other concerns. Staff members pulled back-end data from the survey and the university housing portal, StarRez, to connect them with relevant staff.

For example, if a student indicated they had concerns about their roommate, staff would send a resident assistant to follow up and identify an appropriate solution, such as a roommate mediation session or a room switch.

Most of the housing issues shared through the survey—roommate concerns or maintenance issues—were not previously documented, from which staff inferred that students were using the survey to share challenges they didn’t otherwise have a way to, said Cynthia Aranda Cervantes, executive director for housing administration.

Another response to student surveys was a re-evaluation of an academic support spaces in the residence halls, which SDSU calls STAR Centers. There are eight STAR Centers across dorms where students can meet with professional or peer advisers, receive tutoring, attend academic workshops, or meet with faculty in residence for research paper support.

Survey data indicated that these spaces were underutilized, so leaders are crafting a new strategy to get learners into centers, including a social scavenger hunt during move-in to point out where the facility is, inviting parents to the STAR Center during orientation and tracking attendance in the space to find out what students are doing when they’re visiting. SDSU staff are also considering rebranding or renaming the centers to make their purpose clearer to residents.

Students indicated a desire for more social engagement and support getting connected to campus, so the university is looking at creating a new student leader role focused on social events and programming, allowing RA responsibilities to center on daily living and engagement with residents.

What’s next: The initial survey accomplished the university’s goals in better understanding student experiences, so staff are looking at how to improve the assessment experience and better connect survey responses to institutional data.

Most respondents were first-year students (which lines up with the share of on-campus residents), so future outreach will focus more on upper-level students to gain additional insight into how their experiences may differ.

Staff also plan to reduce the number of survey questions by instead pulling from existing data sources—for instance, not asking students if they visit the STAR Center but instead using system data to determine that—and through using the CSU data dashboard to gauge longer-term student success metrics.

How does your institution assess and evaluate student success programs? Share here.

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