Survey Centers and the Academy

Turn to any news outlet, and you will find a public opinion poll bearing a college or university affiliation, writes Mileah Kromer, but few people on campuses even know how survey labs function, let alone the benefits they provide.

August 22, 2017

Academic survey centers are at the forefront of measuring, understanding and disseminating the significant political and social changes happening throughout the country. Turn to any news outlet, and you will find a public opinion poll bearing a college or university affiliation. Last year, The Washington Post noted that Americans addicted to polling can get their fix from colleges and universities. And even the host of MSNBC’s Hardball, Chris Matthews, has remarked on the air that public opinion polling is publicity for academic institutions.

But despite the frequency with which people are exposed to polling in the media, few of them -- including senior administrators -- even know how survey labs function, let alone the benefits we provide. For example, many survey centers are self-funded -- they pay for their operational costs via the procurement of contract work -- while other centers are funded directly by an operating budget or endowment fund as part of a strategic initiative. And, unfortunately, despite a long history of success, in the wake of the recent economic downturn and subsequent budget cuts, some centers were forced to downsize their operations -- or worse, cease to exist.

The survey center that I direct, the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, produces the Goucher Poll, a survey of Maryland residents on policy issues facing the state. The Hughes Center, along with more than 60 other survey organizations housed at academic institutions, is a member of the Association of Academic Survey Research Organizations. AASRO’s goals are to promote research integrity, scientifically grounded data collection practices and methodological innovation. We are a diverse group, ranging from flagship universities to small liberal arts colleges, and steadfastly committed to educating the next generation of research professionals.

While the final products -- the polls that the pundits pontificate about on cable news -- get the glory, it’s behind the scenes where survey labs contribute most to their institutions. And, in fact, at a time when other entities on campuses are working to develop ways to teach a new generation of learners, it is the survey research center that remains a standard bearer for developing skills in undergraduate and graduate students. Some of the many fundamental benefits we provide our institutions, students and scholars include:

Experiential learning opportunities. Academic survey centers exemplify the learn-by-doing model. They give students the chance to design research protocols, develop questionnaires, test questions and instruments, monitor data collection, and conduct data analysis.

At survey units housed in teaching-centered institutions -- such as my center or the Castleton Polling Institute at Castleton University -- directors often split their time evenly between teaching responsibilities and directing the survey lab, so that the survey center becomes an extension of the classroom. For example, a core component of any quantitative social science research-methods class is sampling methodology. I use the demographic data collected by our statewide Goucher Poll to illustrate both how random sampling works and how factors (for example, differing response rates across demographics) influence the representativeness of the sample. At Castleton, students recently assisted with the development of a data-collection app by conducting focus groups on their fellow students.

Experiential learning opportunities are not limited to institutions with a primary focus on undergraduate teaching. At the Indiana University Center for Survey Research, graduate students as well as select undergraduate students spend several weeks working as phone interviewers for a faculty-directed research project as part of the Sociological Research Practicum. There is no greater lesson in the difficulties of collecting quality data than personally conducting interviews with respondents. Students leave this experience with a greater understanding of the real-world obstacles in completing quality, timely and valid research.

Research design, data collection and direct observation of scientific phenomena are standard components of the academic experience for students in the natural sciences. Yet social science students are often taught quantitative skills through the analysis of pre-existing data sets. The knowledge and technical skills of biology students are certainly related to lab time, and the same is true for social science students who have the opportunity to work in survey centers.

Exposure to cutting-edge research methodologies. Having a staff of survey experts on the campus is an invaluable academic resource for everyone -- from graduate students to senior scholars who need guidance on a project’s time frame, cost and protocol. And as we move into an increasingly interdisciplinary academic environment, campus survey centers act as a bridge between academic departments.

For example, the survey centers at the University of Nebraska and the University of Illinois at Chicago bring together students from the natural and social sciences to develop research protocols that incorporate the collection of biological specimens with traditional survey methods. At Illinois, the Survey Research Laboratory has trained interviewers to collect biomeasures such as hair, saliva and urine, as well as blood pressure and lung function data, for use in evaluating respondent awareness of their personal health conditions (e.g., hypertension) and willingness to report specific health behaviors (e.g., illicit drug use). This work teaches students to view problem-solving through a new lens and provides exposure to interdisciplinary skills needed in the current work force.

Recognizing the future of survey methodology, Temple University’s Institute for Survey Research has developed an innovative, online survey panel called BeHeardPhilly intended to increase civic engagement among city residents and build survey research infrastructure for government, universities and nonprofits. At the institute, students from Temple and neighboring Drexel University assist with panel-member recruitment, instrument development, technology platform design and collecting data in the field. The end goal of this project is to create a tool that allows Philadelphia organizations and agencies to better serve their communities.

Community work and engagement. While the proliferation of centers for community-based learning and civic engagement have been popping up on campuses all across the country, college and university administrators should know that survey research centers have always created academic experiences that incorporate community work and engagement.

For instance, working with investigators from the University of Chicago Medical Center, the University of Chicago Survey Lab worked to develop a taxonomy to characterize all of the assets on the South Side of Chicago. Undergraduate students traversed every block of the South Side while mapping the location of assets within each community. This project gave students the opportunity to develop field research experience and work in economically diverse communities. The data were ultimately distributed to patients based on the locations of their homes and their medical conditions.

My center recently won the Governor’s Park Advisory Commission Award of Excellence for our project on resident perceptions and usage of Maryland state parks. A team of undergraduate students met with the park superintendent and developed a set of questions for our statewide poll that helped the parks department understand the outdoor activity preferences of Marylanders. Students analyzed the responses, co-authored an executive report and presented the findings of the survey to the state park advisory board. This work helped to inform Maryland state parks on areas for new recreational investment.

Practical and transferable skills. It is an undeniable fact that working at a survey research center builds practical and transferable skills in research methods, statistics, project management, working with clients, report writing, evaluation and skills like transcription, data entry, mail management, web programming and the like.

At the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, student interviewers get to hear firsthand opinions that may be different from their own. The ability to speak with people of many different backgrounds and converse about a broad range of topics, while at the same time being faithful to the questionnaire they are conducting, significantly improves their communications skills. Learning to listen, rather than responding to the motives of the respondent, is a skill that will most certainly help them in their careers in a diverse society.

Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, the oldest statewide academic survey research center in the country and home of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, teaches students how to communicate survey results to a general audience. Their internship program develops skills not only in survey research methodology but also in data analytics, social media and public relations, data visualization and graphical representation, and website design. Students use such skills to assist with the center’s press releases, reports and other publications -- all while under the pressure of a news cycle and in a highly political environment.

Our Value Proposition and Future

Survey centers also indirectly contribute to improving student learning by conducting research on current student perceptions of the institution’s programs and services and the campus climate. These data are used to improve the academic experiences of students. Other centers conduct alumni surveys, which help them understand from which part of the collegiate experience graduates benefited the most -- and highlight areas of improvement in student preparedness for postgraduate life.

Survey centers are as central to academic life as a research library and scalable enough to fit a large research university or a small liberal arts college. As economies improve and donation/endowment funding emerges, colleges and universities should consider allocating more funds to their survey centers. Instead of looking for the next trend in academe, administrators should reinvest in the original center on the campus. Students, researchers and society at large will unquestionably benefit from it.

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Mileah Kromer is an associate professor of political science and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. She also serves on the executive committee of the Association of Academic Survey Research Organizations.


Mileah Kromer

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