Toward a More Perfect (Student) Union – Satisfaction with the Denison Experience

By Nathaniel Nakon

Every fall millions of college freshman take their first steps onto a campus that they will call home for the next four years.  Regardless of the countless hours spent researching the institution or making on-campus visits, there is no knowing what exactly the road before them holds.  The experiences that college provides are very much unique to the campus that a student chooses to attend, but the ultimate goal is to ensure that each individual graduates with a sense of satisfaction and can look back at their time spent in school and know that they made the right decision. How satisfied are Denison students and what shapes that sense?

Denison stresses that its guiding principles will provide students with the ability to grow into “autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and active citizens of a democratic society.”  However, what occurs inside the classroom is only a fraction of the college experience, as involvement in extracurricular activities and social interactions are arguably where students make their connection to the school and develop a key set of skills that mimic the work world.

In order to test whether a satisfactory experience is actually a function of these three key indicators (academics, involvement, and social interaction) I examined survey data on Denison students that were collected in the fall of 2015.

Among the questions in the survey was one that asked more_perfect_figure1about how an individual would rate their “overall Denison experience” on a scale ranging from extremely dissatisfied to extremely satisfied.  As shown in Figure 1, student satisfaction approaches 90%, though there is variation in the level of satisfaction expressed. Only 24% are extremely satisfied, though only 9 percent are some variant of dissatisfied; a near majority (49%) are “satisfied.”

To explain the variation in satisfaction, I looked for variables in the survey that best matched the three core indicators. Admittedly, these measures are imperfect proxies for all of the wonders that go into the Denison experience. Academic success was measured using GPA, involvement was measured as an aggregate of the clubs and activities that individuals indicated participating in, and social interaction was examined using the number of people they reported talking about campus affairs with (0-3). I also checked to see whether satisfaction was related to economic class, gender, and political partisanship. While it is not shown, satisfaction did not vary by division of the primary major – artists are not more satisfied than scientists.

Figure 2 shows how satisfaction varies given different scores on these key measures.  An individual’s GPA and the number of people they talk with about campus affairs (“Network Size” in the figure) were both found to have significant positive effects on one’s overall experience at Denison – the more people that you talk to and the higher your GPA is, the more satisfied you will be (by about half a point, on average).  It is worth noting that gender does not play a significant role in the overall experience of students (neither do partisanship or class, which are not shown).

more_perfect_figure2

There are two competing explanations for the positive effect of GPA.  Following the logic that a higher GPA is indicative of a student that is more engaged with their academic experience, we could draw the satisfying conclusion that broad success in coursework contribute to one’s satisfaction with college.  The other possible explanation for this relationship is that student satisfaction follows a consumer mentality, and students are interested in being served rather than challenged. Given that this is overall GPA and not GPA in the selected major, we lean toward the first interpretation.

The finding that social engagement with campus issues has a positive impact on satisfaction with the Denison experience is of particular interest.  This result speaks to the importance of feeling connected not only to others, but also to the campus itself. It stresses the role that collective action plays on our small campus, and highlights that Denison students are in fact more satisfied when they come together to address the issues that they face here on the hill. It’s a finding that resonates with a wide range of academic literature in political science and sociology about social capital.

College challenges students to grow and embrace new experiences, both inside and out of the classroom. But just what kind of experiences? The advice given to incoming students is often some variation of: find your niche, carve out your own space, be an individual. These results, however, say something different. Satisfaction appears closely linked to being a part of something bigger, joining the collective conversation, doing well across a wide range of intellectual endeavors. While we will refrain from quoting JFK yet again, maybe it’s worth reframing our student body as a citizenry, invested in making this a more perfect campus in a display of what Alexis de Tocqueville called, “self-interest, properly understood.”

When not writing for One Twenty Seven, Nathaniel Nakon can be found in the Knapp lab, attempting to break the world with numbers and keystrokes.

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