Economy Affects Students' Academic Performance as Well as Spending Decisions

Some forgo buying books, survey finds; many seniors, especially in minority groups, chose majors based on job prospects

November 15, 2012

Like many Americans caught up in the economic downturn, college students are worried about money. Now research indicates that financial worries may affect their academic performance.

This year's National Survey of Student Engagement, released on Thursday, reveals that more than a third of seniors and more than a quarter of freshmen did not purchase required academic materials because of the cost. Roughly equal shares, around 60 percent, said they worried about having enough money for day-to-day expenses. And 36 percent of freshmen and 32 percent of seniors reported that financial concerns had interfered with their academic performance.

Since 2000, Nessie, as the survey is known, has collected wide-ranging data to help colleges develop effective educational practices and promote engagement. Students are asked, for instance, how much time they spend studying, whether they get involved with campus organizations, and how they interact with their professors and peers.

This year the researchers, based at Indiana University at Bloomington, also assessed how the economy was affecting students at a subset of the 546 American colleges that participated.

The survey examined students' employment, finding that among freshmen, nearly 20 percent worked on campuses, and about 30 percent worked elsewhere. For seniors, those proportions were about a quarter on campuses and more than half elsewhere. Students working off campuses logged more hours: More than half of seniors working on campuses worked less than 15 hours a week, but 40 percent of full-time seniors in off-campus jobs worked more than 16 hours a week; 20 percent logged 30 or more hours.

Other research has found that working up to 20 hours a week can increase students' engagement and improve their academic performance, but that a greater time commitment can be detrimental. In this year's survey, more than half of full-time seniors who worked 21 or more hours a week said their work schedule interfered with their studies. Yet 60 percent of those students said they had investigated working even more hours to help cover the cost of college.

Alexander C. McCormick, director of the survey, says institutions should consider such findings an opportunity to get a better sense of the financial stressors that shape students' academic experiences.

Most colleges, he points out, know which students have on-campus jobs. But administrators could do more to figure out how much time students spend working off-campus, and whether those commitments threaten their academic success.

"You can never do enough to understand who your students are," Mr. McCormick says. But collecting data is the easy part. "The really hard work is up to the colleges and universities, to figure out what the data mean and what they want to do in response."

The degree to which career opportunities affect students' choice of major was another focus of this year's survey. A majority of seniors, more than 55 percent, said factors such as the ability to find a job or the prospect of career advancement influenced which major they chose.

Asian students were most influenced by job factors (68 percent), followed by African-Americans (65 percent) and Latinos (63 percent). By comparison, 53 percent of white students were motivated by those concerns. Over all, 89 percent of students still said their academic interest and a good fit for their talents were most influential in their choice of major.

In terms of studying, seniors in most majors tended to spend an hour or two less time preparing for class than professors expected, according to the report, which also incorporates results of a faculty survey.

To complete assignments and class projects, one-third of students said they had used social media.

How Colleges Use the Data

When colleges get their Nessie results, presidents and provosts are usually interested, Mr. McCormick says. Recently researchers have sought to make the data more useful for people closer to the classroom, especially department chairs and professors.

Starting last year, colleges could customize their survey results by major field. The new feature, which proved popular, allows for comparisons between, say, engineering and English majors on one campus—or students in any major and their counterparts at peer institutions.

In its 13-year history, the survey has argued for the importance of "deep approaches to learning" and "high-impact practices" such as undergraduate research and service learning.

Nessie officials regularly promote the use of the survey data. This year's report, for example, highlights efforts to increase faculty-student interaction at Winona State University and to engage transfer students at Western Michigan University.

The survey, however, has drawn critics—and challenges to its validity. Last year a higher-education journal questioned Nessie's methodology and its reliance on students' self-reporting.

Mr. McCormick maintains that questions are crafted to elicit valid responses. Longitudinal trends, he argues, illustrate Nessie's pertinence: Of more than 400 colleges that administered the survey four times from 2004 to 2012, more than half saw positive trends for first-year students, and slightly more than a third did for seniors, on at least one of the survey's benchmarks.

Most of those trends, he says, came in "active and collaborative learning." The survey's other benchmarks are level of academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment.

The survey serves as a tool to improve learning, Mr. McCormick says, not to rank colleges. A previous Nessie report pointed out that the student experience varies less among colleges than it does among individuals on the same campus.

Still, some colleges brag about their results. Elon University calls itself a "national leader" in "engaged learning activities" on the basis of the Nessie report. Elon notes that its students spend more than 10 hours a week studying and more than five hours a week taking part in activities that involve learning but aren't on the curriculum. Quest University, in British Columbia, said last year's survey placed it "number one among North American universities in the degree of student engagement, the level of academic challenge, and the intensity of student-faculty interaction."

Next year Nessie will look different. The survey will no longer include its traditional five Benchmarks of Effective Educational Practice, which some critics have said overlap. Instead it will have "engagement indicators," based on academic challenge, learning with peers, experiences with faculty, campus environment, and high-impact practices.

Half of the survey's questions will be new or substantially rewritten, to be more inclusive of online learners and less biased toward the humanities and social sciences.

New questions will refresh language about technology. For example, the survey will no longer ask how often students use computers in their academic work.

The survey is administered by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, is sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and is paid for by participating colleges. This year's report, "Promoting Student Learning and Institutional Improvement: NSSE at 13," is available free online and for $20 in print from the National Survey of Student Engagement.