The survey of more than 276 schools measures five categories of student involvement.
By ANDREW MEACHAM
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- A survey intended to measure student involvement in learning has rated Eckerd College in the top 15 percent of colleges and universities nationwide.
The National Survey of Student Engagement queried more than 150,000 freshmen and seniors at 276 schools. The survey, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning, contrasts with more traditional college rating systems such as the annual report published in U.S. News and World Report.
Those surveys measure values such as the size of a school's endowment, number of faculty members or books in the library, said Jessica Korn, Eckerd's director of institutional research.
"It's a very different point of view," Korn said. "One survey is about how rich an institution is. The NSSE measures richness in the depth and quality of students and faculty, and of the education provided."
To be ranked in the top 15 percent overall, a school had to score in the top 15 percent in at least three of five categories: "level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student interaction with faculty members, enriching educational experiences," and "supportive campus environment."
Only four schools scored in the top 15 percent in all categories: Beloit College (Beloit, Wis.); Centre College (Danville, Ky.); Elon College (Elon College, N.C.); and Sweet Briar College (Sweet Briar, Va.).
Eckerd was among 15 colleges scoring in the top 15 percent in four of the five benchmarks. In "supportive campus environment," which measures student assessments of social life and college cooperation with non-academic needs, Eckerd matched the liberal arts average, or below the top 15 percent.
Founded as Florida Presbyterian College in 1958, the school changed its name in 1972 after a financial bail-out by drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd. Enrollment has climbed steadily in recent years and is currently at about 1,500.
Among the report's findings, Eckerd students:
Study abroad at twice the national average for freshmen (three times the national average for seniors);
Participate in community projects as a part of their courses at twice the national average for freshmen (three times the national average for seniors);
Are more likely to ask questions in class or contribute to class discussions; and
Report having had "serious conversations with students of varying religious, political, personal orientations or values."
The survey encompassed other elements of a student's college experience that might not show up on larger surveys such as faculty accessibility, number of written papers 20 pages or more, and the degree to which the college encourages interaction with students of other races and ethnicities.
The numbers didn't surprise Julie Lockard, 21, a psychology major who came to Eckerd from Brunswick, Md., in part for sunshine and beaches.
"The faculty are really nice here," she said. "They keep their hours posted on the door. They try to stay accessible and keep everybody involved."
A controversial drinking policy may have factored into the lower rating on "supportive campus environment." The policy, passed by the Board of Trustees in February, forbids even students of legal age from drinking alcohol outside of their rooms without special permission.
Perhaps two dozen students protested the policy in the fall by drinking beer and other alcoholic beverages outside of the Franklin Templeton administration building.
Kristin McCoy, a junior and computer science major from Seoul, Korea, said she thinks the policy has caused some students to move off-campus and lowered student morale.
"I remember in my freshman year we'd go to the new dorms and there would be tons of people hanging out," she said. "Now there's no one."
Tom Miller, Eckerd's dean of students, countered that the percentage of students living on-campus has gone up each of the past three years. The college has tried to encourage older students to remain on campus by completing the 150-bed Omega complex in 1999. Students pay $4,225 a year to share an apartment with up to three other students.
Nu Dorm, built in 1987, also offers four-bedroom apartments for up to eight students in a cluster, for $3,040 a year. Traditional dormitory rooms are $2,380 for a double room, $3,610 for a single.
Miller acknowledged that the policy was tied to a 1987 federal law requiring colleges where students receive federal financial aid to have rules and regulations discouraging illegal drinking and drug use. Students could lose between $3-million and $5-million yearly in federal aid if the government pulls the plug, Miller said.
"If we weigh it and say, "Gee, let's let students who are of age drink in public, or let's get federal financial aid to students,' it's not a tough call," he said.