By Jessica Watkins
Mark Freeman’s office doesn’t match his job.
The room lies along Taylor’s second floor corridor, now somewhat of a ghost town after the transition of the Deans and Co. to Guild at the beginning of this semester. Walking into the well-lit space one is greeted with inspiration from all directions. A magnet on the radiator proclaims that “A truly happy person can enjoy the scenery on a detour!” Nudging toward the edge of his desk, a paperweight asks, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Framed New Yorker covers and a colorful tapestry decorate the walls.
It looks more like a psychiatrist’s office – appropriate, perhaps, since Freeman studied psychology – than that of Bryn Mawr’s Director of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment.
The man behind the title is not nearly as impersonal as the institutional surveys that his office helps to develop, distribute, analyze and “translate” into relevant policy questions that can bring about change on campus. You may have noticed a few coming through your inbox, such as the Senior Survey, the National Survey of Student Engagement and, as of this past Friday, the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) sent out by the Health Center.
And that’s not the end of it. Admitted students, enrolled freshmen, alumnae and parents are inevitably asked to partake in the process of data collection at one point or another. “I try to play traffic cop for all surveys,” Freeman says of his position, which he has held for four and a half years. “Our core value is to be objective.”
Freeman’s office may lie on the objective end of the spectrum, but administrative channels such as the Dean’s Office and Health Center take advantage of data as a means of evaluating Bryn Mawr compared to similar schools and improving the student experience.. Collective data is shared between the Seven Sisters and other liberal arts colleges, although school names are kept confidential. According to Freeman, however, surveys are not just a useful tool for insuring student satisfaction. They are vital to maintaining an institution’s accreditation.
“Part of the reason I have a job here is because of the heat that’s been turned up on colleges,” he explains. “[Accreditation] is not just a seal of approval – it’s more than that.” For one, it helps the college secure financial aid money from the government.
This does not mean that data stays within the confines of office walls in Guild or Taylor, however. “We try to make some form of information available back to students,” Freeman said. Such distribution of data is usually driven by particular questions asked by student groups such as SGA.
“I’m a data person, so I don’t really see many drawbacks to sharing data,” Freeman said. “But it’s important to have a group that is requesting information and filtering it to the wider student body. If you’re not trained in that, things could be easily misinterpreted.”
Such feedback to students may differ across surveys, though. Take the NCHA, for example, which will run from Feb. 10 – 27. It will take over ten weeks for the data collected to be processed and compiled in a report sent out to the Seven Sisters. After that, it will be used by Health Services as a closer look at student health habits.
“It’s just going to be very interesting for us to know what students’ habits are so we can help out with programs and services, if necessary,” said Sally Heimann, Clinical Administrator at the Bryn Mawr Health Center. The survey, which is completely confidential, touches on subjects such as physical and psychological health, substance use and sexual activity.
Understandably, not every student may want to participate in the survey after a glance at the sensitive questions contained within, which is why a confidential approach is being used. The survey itself was recently approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Bryn Mawr, and has been used at colleges and universities across the country.
“Why reinvent the wheel?” asks Dean Michelle Rasmussen, who says the college preferred to use a ‘ready-made’ survey instead of creating one from scratch, citing the NCHA as the “gold-standard.” She, like Freeman, acknowledges that “a much greater expectation has been placed on colleges to take an objective or quantitative approach.”
Not exactly what you think of when you hear the words “liberal arts.”
“It sounds impersonal and scary, but it’s a powerful and complex way to organize student information,” she said. PeopleSoft, otherwise known as Virtual Bryn Mawr, is an example of one objective tool used by the administration to achieve such organization.
The NCHA, according to Dean Rasmussen, will help Bryn Mawr “get beyond anecdote” and keep track of data, rather than guessing. Heimann points out that several groups, such as the Body Image Council, have come out of an impression-based approach that used trends noticed as cases came in. However, objective data will help the Health Center pinpoint exactly what kinds of services they need to alter or initiate, if any.
This requires actually collecting the data, which is not as simple as it sounds. Heimann and Rasmussen both voiced concerns about low response rates, acknowledging that students’ inboxes are already bombarded with quite a few survey links and requests.
“We just really want the data. Thirty to fifty percent would be fabulous,” Heimann said of the response rate she and the Health Center are hoping to achieve. She acknowledges that students get enough e-mail as it is (“I just skim staff e-mails, myself.”), and worries that they will go into the survey overwhelmed.
“While students may think their responses are not valued, remember that a survey is only as good as the number of people that fill it out,” said Dean Rasmussen.
The Bi-Co News is quite aware of this. Our own survey sent campus-wide garnered responses from only twenty-eight students, although the data showed that only 11% “find surveys annoying” and 68% fill them out often when they receive them. Anonymous opinion on the use of surveys ran the gamut.
“I think most surveys usually address and assess issues that concern the community on a macro level. I think Bryn Mawr needs more attention to subfields of student life, of organizations,” said one student.
“I just wish people would answer surveys,” said another, who described them as a “good way of reaching many different people.”
Bryn Mawr’s administration harbors similar sentiments, and has been attempting to raise interest in the NCHA. Dean Rasmussen says that some data could possibly be fed back through a student advisory committee. Heimann spoke with the Health Center Advisory Board two weeks ago and told student leaders to “spread the word.”
Dean Rasmussen sees many students go in and out of her office throughout the day, but by no means does she get intimately acquainted with the problems and concerns of each. “We don’t think all Bryn Mawr students can be boiled down to a statistic, but a survey might serve the students we don’t hear from as much…It’s hard to ignore data.”