Analysis: Louisiana campus climate survey draws few answers
Aug. 24, 2018
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers in 2015 sought an annual survey of public college students about issues of violence, part of an effort intended to improve the way campuses work to prevent sexual assault and respond to assault allegations.
After three years of surveys, it's hard to suggest they've gained much insight into campus safety.
So few students have participated year after year that surveyors consistently warn the information isn't applicable to the broader student population across campuses.
The results of the latest campus climate survey conducted at public colleges around Louisiana were presented Wednesday to the Board of Regents, the state's top higher education board.
The response rate again hovered around 3.5 percent, the same as the prior year's survey and less than the 5 percent rate from two years earlier when the survey began. Only 7,110 students out of about 215,000 statewide took the voluntary survey during the 2017-18 year.
"The response rate was inadequate statistically and, therefore, not representative of the entire student population at an institution nor the student population of the state as a whole," a summary of the survey warns the reader.
Larry Tremblay, a Regents deputy commissioner, described the response rate as "horrendously low," but said that matched response rates seen at other colleges conducting similar surveys around the country.
But this time, Louisiana's survey that had been conducted for free in the first two years cost $60,000 to perform, charged to college systems on a pro-rata basis by enrollment, only to still produce what were described as "non-significant findings."
Sen. J.P. Morrell, the New Orleans Democrat who sponsored the survey requirement bill, said he'd like to revisit the law to see "if there's a way to improve it."
"I think obtaining the data is an important part of keeping kids safe, but we have to understand why the response rate is so low," Morrell said. "If it's going to start costing us money, this is something we're going to have to look at."
A litany of reasons has been offered for the low response rate: the length of the survey, general survey fatigue, and the uncomfortable nature of the questions.
Morrell suspects the problem might be the voluntary nature of the survey, but he said college system leaders didn't want a mandatory requirement during the writing of the law.
"The moment a college student knows something is voluntary, they just don't do it. That's just the nature of college students. They're overwhelmed with all the requirements of a degree," Morrell said.
Possible fixes, he said, could involve making the survey mandatory for outgoing freshman or another specific group of students or incorporating the survey into student registration.
Regents' staff members have discussed surveying a sample of students each year or doing the survey every few years. The University of Kentucky's Center for Research on Violence and Women, the contractor that performed the most recent Louisiana campus climate survey, raised concerns about the requirement for a yearly survey, Regents' staff said.
Others have talked about trying to add incentives to draw more student participation. Tulane University in New Orleans seemed to have success with that approach.
Tulane conducted its first campus-wide climate survey in the winter of 2017. Meredith Smith, an assistant provost at the private university, said in a statement the survey drew a 47 percent response rate, with 4,644 out of 9,958 students completing the voluntary survey.
The school intends to perform a similar survey every four years, Smith said.
Students who answered the questions received either a $5 Amazon gift card or entrance into a lottery where they could win football tickets, free campus parking, free textbooks, or other items. Most students chose the lottery.
For the survey across Louisiana's public colleges, Regents' staff suggested the efforts weren't useless. They said campuses could learn from what the limited number of respondents said about their experiences.
The survey questioned student perceptions of safety, their personal experiences with violence, their drinking behaviors, and their level of knowledge about reporting sexual assault and resources available. Of those who responded, 5 percent said they were a victim of sexual assault.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte