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Happiest students? Princeton Review rankings, unpacked


By Elizabeth Myong     9/27/16 9:59pm

With the release of the Princeton Review’s rankings earlier this month, Rice regained its position as having the happiest students in the nation. Responses to the ranking varied, and students, faculty and administration are having a more nuanced discussion about the implications and impact of the ranking on students. Many have questioned the process of determining the rankings themselves, which Princeton Review’s “Best 381 Colleges” co-author David Soto explained in an interview with the Thresher.

Wiess College junior Alex Bergin-Newman said she believes happiness is relative and cannot be measured. Following the release of the ranking, Bergin-Newman authored an op-ed in the Thresher entitled “Happiest ranking isolates unhappy students,” which garnered a strong response online from the Rice community.

“For someone like myself who is dealing with depression and anxiety, a six or seven out of 10 on a scale of happiness is a success for me, and symbolizes that I feel that I’m dealing with all of the crap going on in my life pretty well,” she said. “But that same score doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.”

On the other hand, Duncan College junior Mike Hua said he is proud of the ranking and feels it is good for the university.

“I don’t want it to overshadow the problems we have, including mental health and wellbeing, quality of teaching and opportunities for low-income/first-generation students,” Hua said. “We have to focus on those who need more support.”

The Process

In a phone interview, Soto said the rankings are entirely based on student surveys. In particular, the ranking for happiest students is based on a scaled response to the statement “I am happy at my school,” with five options between “strongly disagree” and “strongly agree.” While the survey is available online year-round, the official survey is sent out to university administration every three years to avoid “survey fatigue.” Each March, the previous year of data is analyzed for publication; all responses received after that period are put in the following edition.

Dan Warner, director of admissions, said he expects the Princeton Review will prompt the administration next month to notify students that the survey will be available. The last time the administration did so was in October 2013.

“We send out the notification to college coordinators, students we work with, the athletics department and distribute it the best we can,” Warner said.

Long-time college coordinators from Brown, Martel, Jones, and Will Rice said they have difficulty recalling whether they received and distributed the survey prompt from the Princeton Review and could not find the email from 2013 in their archives.

Following distribution, it’s up to students to respond. According to Soto, the number of participants has varied from all 26 students at an extremely small college to a smaller proportion of 5,000 students at a large university.

According to Fred Oswald, professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Rice, there are positives and negatives to the Princeton Review’s method of data collection.

“One might argue that students themselves are in the best position to know and report on their happiness,” Oswald said. “On the other hand, the students who choose to respond to the Princeton Review survey might not be a random sample; e.g., they may be motivated to complete the survey due to being especially happy or unhappy.”

Oswald believes the Princeton Review seems to do a good job of selecting student responses that reflect the general theme, but the responses that are not provided can also limit the quality of insight.

“You don’t know what folks who chose not to answer would say and that could potentially skew results within a university and/or the relative scores/rankings between universities,” Oswald said.

Oswald suggested incorporating ratings from faculty would allow a more long-term view of students’ happiness; however, he mentioned that this data would have disadvantages, due to faculty being motivated by university to give positive feedback or to faculty not understanding the complete undergraduate experience.

In order to increase participation, the Princeton Review provides incentives, such as iPad giveaways, and allows universities to do so as well, although Rice declined to provide incentives.

Oswald said the influence of incentives provided by Princeton Review or the university could alter the data.

“Certainly incentives can improve survey response rates, providing more data for potentially more accurate results,” Oswald said. “Even small incentives can encourage reciprocity (e.g., giving a $2 bill can be perceived as unique and appreciated).”

Soto said the Princeton Review will not release the survey results for individual colleges, including Rice.

Soto also said students are allowed to make only one submission and the Princeton Review has ways of verifying identity and analyzing feedback. The online survey can be accessed multiple times from a computer, though it asks for the identity and .edu email of the person filling it out.

“If they answer ‘A’ all the way down, we have mechanisms to detect that kind of thing,” Soto said. “We also work with the [National Student Clearinghouse], which keeps track of all enrolled students at a given university, and we audit responses based on that.”

He said the margin between consecutively ranked universities can vary from being very narrow to widely differing. Luckily, the Princeton Review has never had to break a tie.

“This will be our 25th edition, and, in all of those years, we have always had a descending order of rankings — no two colleges have ever had the exact same score,” Soto said.

The administration at a given university is allowed to review the narrative the Princeton Review writes about each school and may raise concerns if it does not accurately reflect the campus. In those cases, the Princeton Review editorial staff will look over student surveys and communicate with the university.

However, Soto emphasized that student responses are never altered and any corrections do not affect the numerical rankings.

“If the narrative reflects the overriding sentiment of the student body, we will not make any changes,” Soto said.

The final publication is then made available to universities at the same time as the public, and the Princeton Review makes the final decision about the content presented. Soto said the results are reliable.

“It’s not coincidental that Rice has consistently been ranked at the top of many of our quality of life lists,” Soto said. “I’d say kudos to the students and faculty for creating that environment.”

The Administration

Amid discussions about the Princeton Review rankings, Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson said he wanted to clarify the Rice administration’s standpoint.

“We actually don’t set as a mission to create the environment in which students are happiest,” Hutchinson said. “We make it our mission instead to create opportunities and expectations that students will become leaders across the spectrum of human endeavor.”

Hutchinson said he believes happiness is a tangential result of the university’s main goal to create an environment where students have opportunities to grow intellectually and engage with faculty, staff and fellow students.

“I think happiness is a vague idea — does happy mean challenged?” Hutchinson said. “Does happy mean satisfied? Does happy mean successful?”

Despite all of the recognition afforded by the rankings, Hutchinson said making campus both challenging and supportive is what’s really important.

“If the students and the university share a common dream for what we can accomplish together, then accomplishing that dream is likely to make us all happy,” Hutchinson said.

The Wellbeing Office

Timothy Baumgartner, director of the Counseling Center at Rice, said the center has not conducted any happiness surveys itself and was not involved with the Princeton Review ranking.

Baumgartner said that he sees it as impossible to define happiness.

“Happiness is subjectively measurable,” Baumgartner said. “That means you can’t compare someone’s happiness to someone else’s.”

Agnes Ho, director of the Student Wellbeing Office, said she agrees that happiness can mean something different for each individual.

“Taking a look from the well-being perspective, there are many different areas— physical, social, mental, emotional— that different students might rank in different areas in terms of their happiness,” Ho said.

Ho said the Wellbeing Office hopes to discuss questions around what happiness means to people and what coping mechanisms students can develop. To this end, the Wellbeing Office has provided counselors for students and advising through related student groups such as the Rice Health Advisors and Rice Alliance for Mental Health Awareness.

Ho encouraged students to come to the Wellbeing Office, whether simply to talk or to work out more extensive issues. However, Ho said the Wellbeing Office, similar to Health Services, is not designed to support more severe mental illnesses. If a student feels that the Wellbeing Office isn’t the right fit or that they need specialized care, Baumgartner said that a care manager will work with the student to find off-campus resources.

Baumgartner said students can often feel isolated and ashamed of their feelings, and the way to combat this is to talk to peers and develop an atmosphere where students openly share their struggles and experience.

“People can get into a place of shame where they feel there is more wrong with [them] than other people and this feeds on itself,” Baumgartner said. “We need to deliver the message that most people are much more emotionally similar than they are different.”

Baumgartner said he has noticed increasing issues with mental health across national college campuses during the past 12 years of career at Rice. He said that this is an ongoing trend that he would like to counter.

“It’s been a wish of mine that it gets normalized to go in for preventive care, ongoing treatment, whatever is necessary to optimize the quality of their life,” Baumgartner said. “It’s a dream I had when I was your age and we’re still fighting to make that happen.”

The Students

Although the student body is split on their views of the rankings, most agreed that happiness is subjective.

Instead of the word “happiness,” Bergin-Newman said she prefers the term “satisfaction,” because those with mental illnesses can still feel satisfaction in how they are managing their mental illness, even when unhappy. In her own experience, learning to be satisfied took plenty of time and work.

“We need to appreciate the work that people go through to reach a point where they consider themselves happy or satisfied with their lives,” she said. “We need to understand that everyone’s journey to happiness is different, and realize that happiness is not a definitive thing.”

Bergin-Newman said she felt the Wellbeing Office counselors had pressured her to take time off from school, and suggested the students should not be forced off-campus. Bergin-Newman also proposed implementing a private Rice survey on mental health, which would target Rice-specific problems.

“Rather than relying on a relatively arbitrary ranking from the Princeton Review, Rice should take it upon itself to gauge the mental health and happiness of students and actively work to improve areas that students find lacking,” Bergin-Newman said.

Jones College senior Sofi Hebert said the the Faculty Senate’s vote to limit the number of credit hours freshmen can enroll in and subsequent student protests highlight the disconnect between administration and students on undergraduate life and mental health. However, Heber said she agrees with the rankings.

“As someone who needed a leave of absence, it’s bittersweet to think that this is good as it gets for our other undergrad peers,” Hebert said. “But at the end of the day, I still wouldn’t trade the euphoria of a Jones Beer Bike victory for anything in the world.”

Student Association Treasurer Maurice Frediere said he doesn’t doubt that Rice students, in aggregate, are among the happiest in the nation.

“Whether we’re first, second or tenth is immaterial to the broader point of how well we serve our students,” Frediere, a Duncan College sophomore, said. “That being said, it’s important that no student feels left out of the Rice experience and community because they’re unhappy at a ‘happy’ school.”

However, Frediere said he did not want the student body or the university as a whole to become complacent as a result of the rankings.

“Our approach to mental health and student happiness needs to be predicated on the belief that there isn’t a ranking or statistic that can point to our services and culture being ‘good enough,’ Frediere said. “It’s okay to be unhappy, we are here for you — and together, we will get you through it.”

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