Wednesday, March 30, 2005

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The decline of Harvard and the return of COFHE

Between my junior and senior years at Williams College, I was an intern for the Office of the Provost. It was there I found out about the Consortium for Financing Higher Education (COFHE), a little-known organization of elite schools that pooled data on admissions, tuition, and the like. When I was working there, COFHE was twitchy about being subject to antitrust investigations, but that died down in the late eighties. As the COFHE website suggests, this is an organization that doesn't really like to advertise its existence.

I hadn't thought about COFHE for at least a decade -- until I saw this Boston Globe story by Marcella Bombardieri:

Student satisfaction at Harvard College ranks near the bottom of a group of 31 elite private colleges, according to an analysis of survey results that finds that Harvard students are disenchanted with the faculty and social life on campus.

An internal Harvard memo, obtained by the Globe, provides numerical data that appear to substantiate some long-held stereotypes of Harvard: that undergraduate students often feel neglected by professors, and that they don't have as much fun as peers on many other campuses.

The group of 31 colleges, known as the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, or COFHE, includes all eight Ivy League schools, other top research universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, and small colleges like Amherst and Wellesley.

''Harvard students are less satisfied with their undergraduate educations than the students at almost all of the other COFHE schools," according to the memo, dated Oct. 2004 and marked ''confidential." ''Harvard student satisfaction compares even less favorably to satisfaction at our closest peer institutions."

The 21-page memo, from staff researchers at Harvard to academic deans, documents student dissatisfaction with faculty availability, quality of instruction, quality of advising, and student life factors such as sense of community and social life on campus.

The raw data used in the memo come from surveys of graduating seniors in 2002, but are the most recent comparison available and are still consulted by Harvard administrators. On a five-point scale, Harvard students' overall satisfaction comes out to 3.95, compared to an average of 4.16 for the other 30 COFHE schools. Although the difference appears small, Harvard officials say they take the ''satisfaction gap" very seriously.

Only four schools scored lower than Harvard, but the schools were not named. (COFHE data are supposed to be confidential.) The memo also notes that Harvard's ''satisfaction gap" has existed since at least 1994.

On the five-point scale, Harvard students gave an average score of 2.92 on faculty availability, compared to an average 3.39 for the other COFHE schools. Harvard students gave a 3.16 for quality of instruction, compared to a 3.31 for the other schools, and a 2.54 for quality of advising in their major, compared to 2.86 for the other schools.

Students gave Harvard a 2.62 for social life on campus, compared to a 2.89 for the other schools, and a 2.53 for sense of community, compared to 2.8.

I'm dying to know where the University of Chicago came out in those rakings. If the U of C -- a place at which the logo "Where Fun Comes to Die" appears on many a t-shirt -- ranks higher than Harvard in terms of satisfaction, then Harvard really has some catching up to do.

posted by Dan on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM


Knowing a bit about Harvard students from having been a grad student there, there are many who would give the Garden of Eden no more than a 3 on a 5 point scale. Which is not to deny that many faculty view students as an annoyance, but really, a class with 8 future pressidents, 4 future Nobel lauraeates and both the next Hemingway and Fitzgerald can be tedious.

To stop being snotty, these are kids who mostly have worked very very hard to get to Harvard and not unsurprisingly many of them feel special for it. And now they are at the place that is supposed to be the best, but it's far from perfect and I suspect the disillusionment is simply greater than at other schools. Who goes to MIT or Univ Chcago expecting a social life?

posted by: Gene on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]


Got "Real" (dis)Satisfaction?

Of Significance and Statistical Significance and Practical Significance--Hmmm...are the differences in Satisfaction measures that you report statistically significant??

If not, your reporting of the numbers may be somewhat misleading.

Go Figure??

Randy Piper, Ph.D.,M.B.A.

posted by: Randy Piper on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

How DID they skate by those anti-trust charges? It seemed fairly clear-cut to me.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

Matt Yglesias had a funny post in this, to the effect that Harvard selects students who don't know how to have fun.

posted by: Greg Marx on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

When I was an undergrad at Virginia Military Institute (in the pre-coed days)nobody even surveyed our (dis)satisfactions. At least Harvard has enough interest to gather statistics. The real test, however, is what the administration is going to do about it. By the way, do they break down the student reactions by faculty?

posted by: Bob on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

When I got to Chicago as an assistant professor, at one of the welcoming events Geof Stone talked a little about Chicago's rankings in the COFHE surveys of alumni. On questions like "What do think about the education you received?", Chicago was near the top. But on questions like "Would you send your children to the same school?", we were near the bottom. In other words, it's the best possible education, but still not worth the suffering.

I do think things have gotten a lot better, even just in the last ten years.

posted by: Sean on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

I recently filled out one of those Chicago alumni surveys and ranked Chicago high in both the categories that Sean lists.
Sadly, most students at Chicago become very depressed their first year because of what they think college is all about. One hears about things like ScavHunt, sees the crazy college movies coming out, and mentally jot down the anecdotes of siblings at Penn or Princeton. Life at Chicago is seriously different than that.
A first year at MIT does not need to worry about grades. Chicago and Harvard students do not have such a burden lifted. And as the Globe article points out, getting into Harvard is great the minute one receives the acceptance letter and the second one secures a prestigious job. The time served in between is not the cocaine-like intellectual stimulation of professors or the fun-filled shenanigans of Animal House that students expect.
Although I've never taken illegal substances, I became hooked on Chicago-style debate, and my experiences elsewhere have not quite compared. Perhaps this is why I sacrificed fun for "the life of the mind." Chicago made me an addict.

posted by: lebanon.profile on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

I went to Harvard and have taught at a good, though not quite top-tier, liberal arts college. There's no comparison. If you want a first-rate undergraduate experience, go to a place where that's the stock in trade, not to a research university where it's an often-neglected sideline.

posted by: Steve LaBonne on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

Bottom line: Hyde Park is dull, dull, dull. At least Harvard's got the Square.

So long as U of C students have to take cabs to Lincoln Park to have a good time, mark the school down as a no-fun zone. Oh, and I don't think moving the Checkerboard changes much at all.

posted by: Larry on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

"..and that they don't have as much fun as peers on many other campuses."

Gosh, that's horrible.

posted by: Les Nessman on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

On a 60 Minutes piece a few years ago, the report projected the idea that sometime in the future there will be a lawsuit over false advertising of the "prized faculty" that undergraduates (especially) never see.

Is Harvard leaving itself open for trouble?

One has to wonder just how many student have negociated a "better deal" based on this "dissatisfaction".

posted by: Neo on 03.30.05 at 11:21 PM [permalink]

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