Engagement Insights: Survey Findings on the Quality of Undergraduate Education

By Nicholas Brock

The 2015 annual report published by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) examined multiple indicators related to undergraduate academic performance. Utilizing the responses of more than 300,000 freshman and senior students, the report explored the connection between challenging coursework and admission selectivity as well as the financial barriers associated with campus engagement and academic success.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Only about half of freshmen students and three in five seniors reported that their college courses highly challenged them.
  • Non-traditional students were more likely than their younger peers to be highly challenged in their coursework.
  • Courses that challenged students to do their best work were unrelated to admissions selectivity- meaning that schools that were more difficult to get into did not automatically challenge students to do their best.
  • Despite the gradual economic recovery, students’ financial stress has, in some cases, worsened in the last 3 years.
  • The largest increase from 2012 to 2015 was in the percentage of students electing to not purchase required academic materials due to their cost. For freshmen, this increase was 4 percentage points (from 27% to 31%) and for seniors this increase was 6 percentage points (from 34% to 40%).
  • Financial stress was most common among undergraduates, particularly among first-generation students, female students, Black students and Hispanic students.
  • However, financial stress had a relatively minimal impact on the amount of time students devoted to their academic coursework. Freshmen students with higher financial stress levels spend about one hour less per week preparing for class than students with lower levels of stress.