The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 72.0°F | Overcast

Switching Colleges Often Hurts Students

By Karen W. Arenson

A new survey has found that it is common for college students to switch schools or to take courses at more than one school, and that such peripatetic students are less engaged in the intellectual and social life of their campuses.

The annual report, the National Survey of Student Engagement, found that transfer students were less likely to work with professors on research projects, to participate in community service or to engage in other activities that enrich learning.

Students in the survey who took courses at multiple campuses said they did so for a variety of reasons. Nearly half said it allowed them to complete their degree requirements sooner. Slightly more than a fifth said it gave them a better course schedule. And 17 percent said it let them take easier courses.

“Most of the students who are doing this are doing it to better themselves,” said George D. Kuh, the survey’s director and a professor of higher education at Indiana University Bloomington. “But what we now know is that it is not altogether positive for students.”

Some 237,000 students at 528 four-year colleges and universities participated in this year’s survey, known as Nessie.

The survey, given this year for the sixth time, was developed with backing from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the hope that data on student experiences would give colleges a better understanding of what was happening on their campuses.

“The project began as an antidote to the U.S. News ratings and other college rankings,” Dr. Kuh said. “Those rankings have a lot to do with prestige. But they have nothing to do with what happens to students.”

The general results of the survey are made public. But the individual, campus-by-campus results are given only to those colleges.

Dr. Kuh said that the project was now self-supporting, and that colleges had begun to make changes based on the data.

At Skidmore College, for example, the data showed that seniors were highly engaged and excited by their coursework, but that first-year students were less engaged than those at other institutions. These findings helped drive a revamping of the program for first-year students, including replacing a long-standing required lecture course, Liberal Studies I, with 50 freshman seminars.

Philip A. Glotzbach, Skidmore’s president, said the Nessie survey showed that the course “wasn’t doing the job of introducing students to college-level work and wasn’t challenging them and getting them excited.”

This was the first year that the survey delved into campus-hopping, a phenomenon known as swirl. Dr. Kuh said he was struck by its extent and its impact.

“The numbers are huge and growing,” he said, adding that “there are all sorts of psycho-social issues when students move around, as well as questions of intellectual coherence to what they study.”

The report reinforced the findings of a study by Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst at the Department of Education, released last year, that reported that college hopping had grown substantially.

That study said that nearly 60 percent of the students who graduated from high school in 1992 attended more than one college, up from 47 percent 25 years earlier.

Dr. Adelman also found that of the students who started in a four-year college and earned a bachelor’s degree, 20 percent earned it at a college different from the one where they started, and one-tenth received their degrees in a state different from where they started college.

Dr. Kuh said that some colleges were seeking ways to improve how they oriented transfer students and introduced them to the opportunities on campus, but that it was not easy.

Frank E. Ross, an assistant vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said Nessie’s findings about transfer students being less engaged accurately described the experience on his campus, which had been trying to figure out how to include them better.

“We front-load a lot of our programs to acclimate new students to campus and to help them be academically successful,” Dr. Ross said. “When students transfer in, they are not exposed to these introductory programs. It absolutely affects their education.”

In August, the university created a new position, coordinator of transfer student services, to address the needs of these students. And this year, for the first time, it invited students starting at nearby community colleges to join the orientation for freshmen, to show them what was available and to motivate them.