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First-year students are a relatively satisfied bunch, survey says

87 percent of students say university has so far met or exceeded their expectations, according to the Canadian University Survey Consortium.

By MOIRA MACDONALD | OCT 07 2019

As the next crop of prospective students flock to university fairs, open houses and high school recruitment tours this fall, they and their parents can be reassured that Canadian universities continue to achieve high satisfaction rates among first-year students.

An overwhelming majority of these students, 87 percent, report that their university has so far met or exceeded their expectations, according to the latest survey by the Canadian University Survey Consortium (CUSC), conducted in the winter term of 2019. Teaching quality, that all-important marker of the educational experience, gets strong marks, too, with nearly nine out of 10 first-year students saying they’re generally or very satisfied.

“We’ve been looking at these surveys for a while, so some of the things that jump out at us are the same things that always jump out, which is the high level of satisfaction that university students have with their decision to attend their university,” says Tyler Hall, president of CUSC. (Mr. Hall is also manager, institutional analysis, in the office of institutional analysis and planning at Carleton University.)

CUSC surveys Canadian university students annually to gauge the changing profile of students and their impressions of their university experience. The survey alternates on a three-year cycle between first-year, middle-years and graduating year students. A total of 46 member universities participated in 2019, with just over 18,000 students responding.

The typical first-year student is female (women outnumber men two-to-one), is 18 years or younger (77 percent) and is a Canadian citizen (85 percent). She’s also increasingly part of a visible minority – 44 percent this year, up from 40 percent in 2016 and 36 percent in 2013. Indigenous students are on the rise, too, increasing their representation from 2016 by one percentage point, to four percent, although they make up six percent of students at smaller, primarily undergraduate universities.

More students are reporting that they’re learning with a disability – 24 percent, compared to 22 percent in 2016 – although only five percent of students say their disability impacts their activities on a daily basis. Mental health challenges are the most commonly identified disability, at 14 percent.

Despite all that has been said about the value of education as an end unto itself, getting a job remains the number one issue on new students’ minds. Nine out of 10 say improving their labour market chances is a motivator for applying to university and, when asked for their biggest reason, career considerations rate in the top five. Meeting family expectations is a much higher consideration among visible minority students (66 percent), compared to non-visible minorities (47 percent).

Students’ focus on employability, however, has not yet led them to take other steps that may help them to reach their goals. Less than half (44 percent) have made a resumé for themselves; one in four (24 percent) have volunteered in their chosen field of employment; and only 17 percent have met with a career counsellor. Nine percent of students report that they haven’t taken any of the job-prep steps specified in the survey. Just over half of students said the presence of a co-op program was important in their choice of which university to attend (it was higher for visible minority students at 59 percent, compared to 43 percent for non-visible minorities).

The relative lack of focus on career planning is “a bit of a puzzle,” says Mr. Hall, at a time when governments and institutions are putting more emphasis on providing students with work-related learning experiences. “Even when we do the graduating student survey,” he says, “the number of students who have engaged in certain career preparation items is a lot lower than what one would expect.”

With most students attending their first choice of university (81 percent), the leading reason for making their choice is that their university offered the program they wanted (29 percent), well above its academic reputation (nine percent). Among international students, a welcoming environment is a top consideration (77 percent), a few points ahead of the cost of international student tuition (73 percent).

Once students have arrived and are attending classes, more than eight out of 10 report success with understanding the material, meeting their program’s academic demands, doing well with their written assignments and feeling like they belong. However, students indicate there’s room for improvement in their study skills – only 65 percent say they have good ones.

Students’ perceptions of their professors are positive, with at least four in five students agreeing to a wide range of statements about their professors’ attributes. These include: they treat students the same regardless of gender or race (97 percent), are reasonably accessible outside of class (90 percent), are well-organized in their teaching (85 percent) and encourage students to participate in class discussions (82 percent). The numbers dip slightly in terms of providing useful feedback on academic work (73 percent) and taking a personal interest in a student’s academic progress (54 percent).

Universities may also want to take a closer look at how new students engage with campus activities. Only half the students surveyed say they’ve gotten involved with campus activities since starting classes. And, despite high satisfaction rates among students attending orientation, participation has been stuck at about two-thirds of incoming students. It’s “something that we haven’t seen grow over the years,” Nicholas Borodenko, who worked on the survey, told a university administrators’ webinar. That, said the partner at Prairie Research Associates, “is a bit of a concern.”

Participating universities use the results to benchmark their own institutions against comparable universities to see where they’re on track and where they might make changes. In a first, all 10 of Alberta’s universities participated this year after the province’s advanced education ministry directed them to take part. The ministry was able to include additional questions in the Alberta surveys around topics such as student finances and mental health, and said it would use the information to help with planning and policy development.

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