Surveys as Policy Tools

If it seems that surveys are ubiquitous, perception is reality. It is not only that more surveys are being conducted, but they are receiving more attention. For evolving situations like the pandemic, surveys offer one of only a few means to learn about people’s contemporaneous experience and gauge their views. 

COVID-19 Pandemic Related Issues

Higher education and workforce are not new survey subjects. But the uncertainties associated with the pandemic have spurred even more. Their purpose basically comes down to seeking the answer to this fundamental question:  will they, or won’t they? This question applies to high school graduates considering whether and where they will go to college this fall. It applies as well as to adults affected by the pandemic-induced economic downturn deciding on whether to pursue postsecondary education to improve their skills. It’s also relevant to policy decision makers in determining whether and when to open campuses to in-person classes. The question can generate a myriad of surveys intended to inform a wide array of individuals deliberating many issues related to higher education. 

For example, will Congress make additional funding available to help colleges and students? Will students be confident they can attend college safely? Will students require additional support services regardless of delivery mode? Will colleges be able to meet the demands of local and regional employers? Will states cut appropriations to higher education or meet maintenance of effort provisions? And so on.

Informing Community College Plans and Decisions

Community college leaders may find different types of surveys useful. National surveys of the general public, such as the Strada Education Networks’ Public Viewpoint:  COVID-19 Work and Education Survey followed changes in attitudes about work and education on a weekly basis. Americans reported on their worries about their jobs and finances during the pandemic. Each week starting in late March through June, the survey focused on different issues, such as the pandemic’s differential impact on race and ethnicity and generations. Consistently, about one-third of the respondents said that they would pursue additional education or training in response to a job loss and about 30 percent would choose to attend a local community college. 

These types of surveys provide an overview of people’s experiences and attitudes. More focused surveys are needed, however, to better understand the impact of the pandemic on postsecondary institutions. For that, college presidents must be surveyed. The American Council on Education commissioned such surveys in April and May. Inside Higher Ed also fielded its annual college CEO survey three times to explore if views changed in response to societal changes. Presidents were asked about the most pressing issues they were facing, the likelihood of offering in-person classrooms in the fall, and the impact on revenues and enrollment. In the ACE survey, enrollment and financial viability were reported the top two most pressing issues. Community college presidents were most likely to say they were very or somewhat likely to reopen to in-person classes in the fall. The Inside Higher Ed survey found that as the pandemic continued, the percent of presidents who were concerned about public attitudes on the value of higher education grew from 48 percent in March to 72 percent in June (60 percent in April). 

Surveys can be used to inform planning and making decisions on the operations of community colleges, such as staff, faculty, programs, services and so much more. Student surveys can provide information about the demand for programs and services. These are not new as climate surveys on sexual harassment or race relations are widespread. Ithaka S & R developed a student survey used by 21 institutions across the nation. In addition to asking students about their intentions to return in the fall, the survey probed topics such as students’ curricular needs, safety and well-being as well their views on the effectiveness of institutional communications and support. Among what the report coined “key insights,” are that students faced many challenges as a result of the pandemic, running the gamut from financial difficulties to technical issues working exclusively online, to feeling a lack of connection, and being concerned about physical and mental health.

Survey Results:  The Do’s and Don’ts

The term insights is more appropriate than findings with respect to survey results/responses. A panel discussion following a presentation of the New American annual survey, Attitudes about Higher Education –Varying Degrees identified a number of ways that survey responses can be analyzed and form the bases of action. We were reminded that national surveys do not capture state, regional, or local variability. Other takeaways include: (1) results can shape outreach and communications; student surveys, in particular, should be widely shared and used beyond the president’s office, including, student affairs, academic counseling, financial aid, etc.; (3) overreacting to findings should be avoided; (4) findings are relevant to the now and near-term but less so for long-term planning; (5) and, don’t ask questions if you cannot address the responses satisfactorily (e.g., a significant percent of responses indicate worries about mental health and the institution either does not have existing mental health services or the resources to provide them.)

For more information, contact Jolanta (J.J.) Juszkiewicz, Director of Policy Analysis at

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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