Survey reveals UF students happy, not challenged enough

December 11, 2009

Students love attending the University of Florida, think they’re getting a good education at a good price and give high marks to their classes, faculty and advisers.

They also study less, party more and are not as challenged academically as their peers at other research universities.

Those are the main conclusions of a large-scale survey conducted last year of undergraduates at UF and five other research universities, UF administrators told members of the UF Board of Trustees Friday morning.

Marie Zeglen, assistant provost and director of UF’s Office of Institutional Planning and Research, said UF is one of six member institutions in the American Association of Universities to implement the Student Experience in The Research University survey developed by the University of California System. The survey’s goal is to reveal a detailed picture of what students think about themselves and their universities — while providing information administrators can tap to enhance and improve education and services.

The survey is unusual in that it is administered to all students, not just a sample, she said. UF administrators required participation in the survey for students seeking football tickets, and the response was unusually high – 70 percent of UF students completed the survey, far more than the 26 and 39 percent at UC-Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan, the University of Pittsburgh and New Jersey’s Rutgers.

“What makes this survey different is that it is a population survey,” Zeglen said. “We tried to sample all undergraduate students, and we were very successful in doing so.”

Trustee Roland Daniels asked whether the football incentive could affect the quality of the results. But Jeanna Mastrodicasa, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, and Zeglen said they believed that was unlikely because the survey’s results closely matched those of earlier surveys — and because of the high level of participation.

“It is still what 70 percent of our students have to say,” Zeglen said.

The survey’s most encouraging results related to student satisfaction.

Overall, more UF students reported that they were pleased with their academic and social experiences than their peers at other universities. UF ranked first of the six institutions in social experience, first in the value of education for the price of tuition, and third in satisfaction with academic experience, Mastrodicasa said.

UF also came in first in the percent of students who said they would choose to enroll again, knowing what they know after having attended.

Seventy-five percent of UF students felt they belonged at UF, compared with 66 percent at the other participating universities. Students ranked athletics and sports events, academic achievement and socializing with friends on and off campus as the top four activities that gave them a sense of belonging.

Meanwhile, the students rated instructional and course quality slightly higher than their peers — and they gave especially winning marks to faculty, staff and peer advising.

“This to me means a lot because I have spent the majority of my career here at UF as an academic adviser, and our students are saying they are satisfied or very satisfied with faculty advising,” Mastrodicasa said. “It’s an area that I think receives a lot of criticism, but actually a lot of our studies back up the fact that advising is actually quite solid on this campus.”

But the survey also highlighted weaknesses of the UF experience, Mastrodicasa said.

One is a marked disparity between the perceptions of white, Hispanic and black UF students. Eighty-three percent of white students agreed that “students of my race/ethnicity are respected on this campus.” That percentage dropped to 64 percent for Hispanics, 53 percent for Asian Americans — and only 32 percent of black students agreed that students of their race are respected on campus.

Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president of Student Affairs, told the trustees that UF is currently seeking a director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. Once that person is on board, she said, his or her first task will be to scrutinize the survey’s results.

“When it comes to being respected on campus, there are many factors that go into it, from ‘how many of those are there from your culture?’, to ‘are there faculty who look like you?…’” Telles-Irvin said. “We are going to look at those factors to try to understand whether and how we can improve.”

That said, the survey also had some encouraging news on race. Eighty percent of UF students said their appreciation of diversity increased while they were attending UF.

The survey made clear the UF academic experience could be more rigorous.

Students so enjoy their time on campus, they feel little urgency to complete their degrees — and as a result, don’t work as hard as they could. Just 48 percent of UF students called graduating in four years “very important” or “essential” compared with 57 percent at other schools. Significantly fewer UF students work while attending school compared to their peers, the survey found. Most UF students are on the state’s Bright Futures scholarship program.

“Most students who come have Bright Futures and they are able to pay handily for the four years of education that Bright Futures will support,” Zeglen said. “We also think that what Jeanna was saying about the friendly and fun atmosphere on the campus probably has something to do with it as well.”

UF students also do not hit the books like their peers. Just 46 percent report studying for 11 or more hours per week compared to 59 percent elsewhere. Florida students spend less time in class than their peers, and more UF students rank “allowing time for other activities” as “very important” in selecting a major than at the other universities.

What’s more, 30 percent of UF students spend at least six hours each week partying, compared with 22 percent at the other campuses. Thirty percent also report alcohol use as a problem on campus compared to 24 percent elsewhere.

“Our students are not spending nearly as much time as their peers studying or preparing for class and attending class, they are also not spending as much time as their peers going to class as well,” Mastrodicasa said. “But they are spending some time partying.”

Mastrodicasa and Zeglen said UF administrators would use the survey both to further examine the problems it highlighted and as starting point for new programs or other initiatives aimed at solutions. Said Zeglen, “We wanted to do this so that we could encourage a culture of self improvements. We wanted to both celebrate what was good about our institution and…find areas where we could improve and make this a better experience for our students.”