Customizing NSSE

Customization Options

Many customization options exist to ensure that NSSE is attuned to the individual needs of the many colleges and universities that participate annually. Customization options for the survey instrument, administration details, and reporting are detailed below.

Survey Customization

The final question on the survey is open-ended, and allows students to share feedback freely. These comments are returned to participating institutions in a raw data file. Institutions may select from among one of four prompts:

  • If you have any additional comments or feedback that you’d like to share on the quality of your educational experience, please enter them below.
  • What has been most satisfying about your experience so far at this institution, and what has been most disappointing?
  • Please describe the most significant learning experience you have had so far at this institution.
  • What one change would most improve the educational experience at this institution, and what one thing should not be changed?

New in 2021 - in addition to choosing from among the four prompts above, institutions may submit a customized prompt to invite student comments on the topic most useful to the campus.

NSSE participating institutions may append up to two Topical Modules - short sets of questions on designated topics such as academic advising, civic engagement, experiences with diversity, technology, and writing. Modules allow for deeper exploration of important areas based on campus needs. Participants may add up to one module for no extra cost, while adding a second module costs $250.

A consortium of five or more institutions may form around a common interest or mission and append a short set of customizable survey items (subject to NSSE review) or coordinate use of Topical Modules among consortium participants. Consortium participants benefit by receiving reports using the additional survey items and data, and an aggregate report is provided to the consortium coordinator. Institutional fees for enrollment in a consortium range between $100-$400 depending on the use and types of additional questions added. The summary report provided to consortium coordinators is provided for no additional fee.

State systems often coordinate their institutions' NSSE participation. Systems that do so receive side-by-side institutional comparisons and a member institution data file (data sharing agreements required for each institution). There is no fee for these services unless a system appends additional questions as a system consortium.

Customizing Your Administration

Campus contacts customize recruitment messages in an online form, which is pre-filled with IRB-approved templates for each of the five recruitment messages. The subject line, message body, and singatory fields may all be customized so that NSSE is understood by students to truly be an initiaitve of your campus. It is also possible to customize the "from name" so that the message appears to have been sent by the signatory you select; however, NSSE recommends keeping the "from name" consistent with the sending email address ("NSSE") to avoid the appearance of phishing.

NSSE staff review each message for all participating institutions, to ensure message content adheres to IRB guidelines. Institutions electing to offer an incentive will customize incentive text separately, and NSSE staff will integrate this text into body of the recruitment message.

Review NSSE's "Dos & Don'ts" for message customization.

Although the online survey is open from late February to mid-May, institutions can choose the window for active recruitment. An online calendar tool is provided which asks for relevant dates for your campus (i.e., term start and end dates, Spring Break, and other campus holidays) and generates an auto-schedule for you based on those parameters. However, institutions may request any alternate dates if the auto-generated schedule do not suit your needs. Recruitment messages are sent only Monday-Thursday.

Incentives are commonly used in NSSE and are effective in boosting response rates. Institutions can choose to incentivize participation through a reward of their choice. Common choices include drawings for an electronic gift (i.e., iPad), for gift cards to local shops (i.e., campus bookstores) or to large retailers (i.e., Amazon). Experiential incentives may also be used; for example, you can raffle a lunch with your college or university's President, or prioritiy access to a campus event. Per IRB, incentives must be described explicitly (i.e., must say Amazon gift card instead of just "gift card" and must stipulate the quanity of prizes available). Incentives must also include an odds statement providing the student a reasonable estimate of their likelihood of winning. NSSE provides an IRB-approved template for incentive text. View NSSE's FAQ on incentives for more detailed information.

Beginning with the NSSE 2022 survey administration, Indiana University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) is requiring greater oversight of language used in promotional materials. All participating institutions’ promotional materials will be submitted for IRB review except when these materials closely follow IRB pre-approved content. 

NSSE is providing guidance and template text to satisfy this new level of IRB review while also facilitating participating institutions creation of attractive and appropriate promotions to encourage students’ response.

For specific guidance and IRB pre-approved text and templates, view Encouraging Participation in NSSE: Using NSSE IRB-Approved Promotional Text.

Report Customization

Although NSSE requires all first-year and senior students be included in the NSSE population file, institutions may identify the students to be used for reporting to best serve their institution’s assessment needs. Examples of customized reporting samples include first-time first-year or residential students (thus excluding continuing first-year or distance education students, respectively). Comparison groups, however, will still include all types of student respondents. Institutions should review NSSE’s population file instructions for additional information about identifying the sample to be used in their Institutional Report.

The NSSE Institutional Report displays an institution's results alongside those of three customizable comparison groups. Institutions select appropriate peers from the pool of participating institutions. Default comparison groups are available, but we strongly encourage institutions to tailor comparison groups in ways that make results most meaningful for campus assessment and research purposes.


Detailing engagement results by major categories has become increasingly important for many campuses as they try to inform assessment. NSSE introduced the Major Field Report in 2009 to help make results more useful to programs and departments. For the purpose of this report, institutions may regroup the 85 student-reported majors into as many as eight new categories to match their profile of degrees offered.


Evidence-Based Improvement in Higher Education

Center for Postsecondary Research
Indiana University School of Education
201 N. Rose Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405-1006
Phone: 812.856.5824