The Qualitative Renaissance

Juliet Blank-Godlove, Dean of Students, George Mason University

February 28, 2017

It is 5:30am.  The air is cold and crisp in the January darkness at George Mason University.  I arrived at campus and am greeted by the positive energy and enthusiasm of the members of 

Student Government and their advisors.  The students huddle together, buzzing excitedly about the day ahead, fueled partially by doughnuts and Starbucks, but primarily by the adventure that awaits 90-miles away.  Today, members of our university community will board buses for a two-hour trip to our state’s capital.  Today is the annual Mason Lobbies Day, a day where students and alumni meet with Virginia legislators to advocate for their priorities within higher education.  Among their legislative priorities for this year are student financial aid, enrollment growth, and veteran’s initiatives.  The university’s ability to provide quantitative data is especially helpful for opportunities like Mason Lobbies Day, as students and alumni can provide relevant data points to help others understand the needs of the Mason student.

Data points that are significant to the Mason Lobbies Day priorities include that “George Mason is the largest public institution in the Commonwealth of Virginia, with 35,189 students. In-state students account for 81% of enrollment; 44% are from minority racial/ethnic groups; and 8% are international. Degree-seeking under-graduates total 23,174, and nearly 6,000 undergraduates (25%) live in campus housing. First-generation college students make up 37% of the undergraduate enrollment.”  Additionally, “Mason has attracted approximately 31% of the statewide enrollment growth in Virginia public four-year institutions since 2007.”  In regard to student financial aid, in 2016 “…62% of Mason students received some form of financial aid, including 28% who received Pell Grants.”  Veteran’s concerns are also significant at Mason, with “approximately 1 in 10 students…affiliated with the military, including veterans, active duty personnel, military dependents, reservists, and guardsmen.”  ( )

Additional statistics from the Division of University Life’s Patriot Success Survey offers supporting data ( ).  The Beacon Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) for first-time freshmen and transfer students, and the Continuing Student Assessment (CSA) for upper-class students both share that the students who responded to the survey are most concerned that financial limitations would keep them from graduating within their intended timeline.  This data is significant within both surveys, as financial limitations are indicated as the top area of student concern (with the exception of 2015 within the the SSI).   

 Overall, the comprehensive quantitative data supports the stark reality that our students have significant financial concerns. 

The necessity of robust assessment practice to gain quantitative data has flourished within the field of Student Affairs over the past several years.  Over these years I have spent time concerned about a lack of quantitative data and worried that my qualitative data will not be viewed as desirable or as relevant as the numbers.  As I reflect on the meetings that the students and alumni have with the legislators, however, it seems that the ability to complement the hard facts with the real-life stories of students who are living these issues would be an important factor to share.  I began thinking about how to capture the stories that are being told in offices, departments, and classrooms across the university.  Some potential ideas include focus groups, online outlets to submit personal stories and feedback, meeting with student organizations, personal outreach in heavily populated student areas, attendance at residential floor meetings, connection with instructors, and meeting with off-campus students during outreach programs.  Additional recruitment efforts could also occur to encourage more students to attend the Mason Lobbies Day program in order to share their narratives directly. 

In addition, the Division of University Life offers the Patriot Experience program, which “provides the framework…to advance co-curricular and experiential learning for all Mason students.”    ( ) The students who attended the Mason Lobbies program, or similar programs, could earn co-curricular “credit” in the Patriot Experience program within the thematic pathway of “Civic Learning and Community Engagement”.  ( )  The Patriot Experience is also an opportunity to connect with students to gain rich qualitative data.

The field of Student Affairs has responded to the need to become more data-driven in order to justify goals.  As we continue to focus on gathering data, we should also embrace our ability to offer the story that complements the statistics as a way to provide a holistic view of our students and their needs.  This could be the beginning of a qualitative renaissance.

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