NSSE's Third Decade

Entering NSSE's Third Decade: Retrospective and Prospective

The NSSE project was founded with two simple yet ambitious goals in mind: To enrich the discourse about collegiate quality with a sharp focus on the activities and experiences that matter to student learning and success, and to provide participating colleges and universities with credible, reliable, and actionable information to inform improvement efforts. These two goals continue to guide the work of the project.

NSSE has not remained static over 20 years. The survey itself, the survey administration process, and reports and services provided to participating institutions have undergone periodic revision so as to best serve our founding goals.

In the final installment of this issue of Engagement Insights, we review what NSSE has accomplished and learned over two decades of operation and identify several potential future directions, informed by feedback we have received from our users and friends.

Banner photo courtesy of Mississippi State University.

NSSE is a story about the power of a big idea to change the way we think and talk, to alter our expectations and our practices.

Pat Hutchings, Former Vice President, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Valid, Diagnostic, and Actionable Information: Is NSSE on Target?

Yes. Research confirms the quality of NSSE results, and survey and report customization maximize their usefulness.

Over two decades, research has affirmed the sound psychometric properties of NSSE results while also informing the creation of new items and measures. For example, NSSE Engagement Indicators are valid and reliable and positively related to retention. In the project’s early years, engagement was shown to predict gains in critical thinking, literacy, personal well-being, and other outcomes. Engagement also has positive effects on grades and persistence for first-year students—including the important finding that historically underserved students benefited more from participating in educationally purposeful activities with regard to both grades and the likelihood of persistence.

In our drive to provide actionable results, we have been responsive to institutional feedback and continuously worked to optimize survey procedures and report customization. Consider the following partial list of customization options we now have in place:

  • Survey content – Updated items and Engagement Indicators, Topical Modules, consortia and state systems, and enhanced options for open-ended survey comments.
  • Recruitment – Customized recruitment scheduling, institution-branded messages, learning management system (LMS) recruitment, and facilitating local incentives.
  • Reports – Expansive list of reports, customized comparison groups and report samples. Other innovations to improve the diagnostic quality of the survey include the NSSE Report Builder and the Online Institutional Report (demo version) – both of which can be shared with others on the campus for wider dissemination of data.

NSSE not only provides participating institutions a valid and reliable sense of how their students are learning through engagement with the institution, but also how this compares to other institutions. That's powerful information for a student-centered institution.

David A. Longanecker, Past President, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE)

What Else Should Be on NSSE’s Agenda?

Faculty obviously play a critical role in NSSE results. But how do they promote student engagement in its multiple forms? We are especially interested in the ways that faculty—and staff—contribute to equitable student engagement.

Another important area for NSSE revolves around its data collection methods. Surveys have been useful for decades, and we expect them to continue playing a role in higher education for years to come. That said, what new data collection methods should we invest in to facilitate participation by hard-to-reach populations? Is it time to expand beyond NSSE’s focus on first-year and senior students to examine the middle years of the undergraduate experience? Should we complement NSSE’s emphasis on student experiences over the full year to drill down on key experiences, such as gateway courses? These and other questions will guide ongoing innovation as NSSE continues to serve the needs of colleges and universities committed to evidence-informed improvement.

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
Email: