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National Study Hits College

By Alexander J. Blenkinsopp

When students received an e-mail invitation to complete an online survey from Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 on Monday, many of them wrote it off as a prank.

But the survey, conducted by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), is legitimate—and marks the first attempt in recent history to gather feedback from undergraduates nationwide.

COFHE is an association of the presidents of 31 colleges and universities, including all Ivy League schools, Duke, Amherst, Wellesley, Northwestern and MIT, which houses the organization’s research division. Of the 31 institutions, 28 are participating in versions of the Enrolled Student Survey.

Some Harvard students assumed the survey was a trick because though the message was signed by Lewis, the sender’s e-mail address belonged to Barbara B. Carroll, director of the Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation. And the e-mail directed students to an MIT website.

“I thought it was a little weird,” said Petra R. Rivera ’03. “For a minute, I did think it was a hoax.”

In fact, COFHE Director of Research C. Anthony Broh said the results of the survey will help participants determine “whether expenditures...have had a positive impact on students’ routines and lives at various schools.”

Financial aid and admissions data, faculty numbers, tuition and endowment calculations also top COFHE’s research agenda, Broh said.

Survey questions—which take between 20 and 25 minutes to complete—cover a wide range of academic and extracurricular topics, including frequency of meetings with professors, weekly hours spent on homework and satisfaction with campus life.

Though most of the questions target students from all COFHE schools, the survey also includes 20 supplemental questions specific to Harvard, eight of which were submitted by the Undergraduate Council.

According to Broh, 19 percent of Harvard undergraduates submitted their survey within 24 hours of receiving it.

Six schools have completed their survey periods, he said, and the highest return rate among these schools was 57 percent.

Working closely with schools participating in the survey is a top priority, Broh said.

“Our organization, unlike most of those that collect data, is very much in touch with the academic institutions,” Broh said.

COFHE staffers will analyze data collected, he said, highlighting trends and common policies for member institutions. The data will then be returned to the schools.

“The more in-depth analysis will take place after we return the data to Harvard,” Broh said, noting that the information would be used in the ongoing undergraduate curricular review.

Lewis, who in the past has opposed sending mass e-mails to students, justified this particular instance of spamming.

“It was hard to think that for a survey like this, where it is of institutional importance to understand ourselves and to compare ourselves to our peer institutions, it would have made more sense to send it on paper or to use other ways of getting word to students,” Lewis wrote in an e-mail.

“President Summers wanted us to participate in this survey because it’s being good to our peer schools,” said Carroll, Harvard’s contact for the survey.

Students who complete the survey will be entered into a random lottery for prizes that include meals at Harvard Square restaurants, and those who complete the survey by this Friday will be entered twice, according to the e-mail sent to all undergraduates.

Carroll—whose office also administers the first-year housing lottery, placement tests, the House tutor surveys and annual surveys for first-year, senior and Ph.D. students—said the funding for the prizes will come from either her office or from the president’s office.

“We do value all the student input,” she said. “Every one of [the surveys] is read.”

And students who deleted the e-mail before completing the survey, she said, will have another chance to finish it.

An e-mail reminder will be sent to all students who do not complete the survey by Friday, including the Web site link at which they can access their personalized survey, Carroll said.

Despite the incentives, some students said they would not complete the survey.

“I was willing to devote five minutes to it,” said Bill Fradin ’05. “I thought it was way too long, so I stopped.”

Christopher R. Townsend ’03 said he had no interest in advancing the project’s progress.

“I’m apathetic about that type of thing,” he said.

—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at blenkins@fas.harvard.edu

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