In an effort to identify and improve lagging areas of UB graduate education, the university hired StudentVoice, a higher education marketing research company, to conduct a survey of 500 incoming graduate students this past summer.
The survey is part of UB's plan to comply with a SUNY memorandum last year that outlined the university's need to boost research endeavors and attract graduate students of a higher caliber.
According to Katherine Ferguson, associate vice provost and director of graduate enrollment, by conducting the survey, UB is attempting to learn how to identify and recruit better quality students rather than simply a greater number of students. Ferguson defines high-caliber graduate students as students who are highly motivated and driven, are serious about education and possess good scholarly potential.
In the survey, graduate students were questioned on what aspects of university life are important to prospective students as well as what factors (for example, a desire to pursue a career in academia or obtain higher paying positions) motivate students to pursue a graduate education.
They were also surveyed on areas such as housing, computer technology, research, student-mentor relations and fields of study.
"We're trying to see how UB rates in those categories and how the university should improve or maintain their strength," said Eric Reich, president of StudentVoice.
"These are not easy programs," said Ferguson. "You want to make sure they come through and succeed in the end and you want to see how they will do as alumni."
The possibility of conducting the survey was first discussed last fall, but until this summer the university lacked the resources to conduct a feasible survey. Ferguson described StudentVoice's data collection system, a group of Palm Pilots, as "unbelievably effective" and said it comes at a reasonable cost to UB.
The system is effective, said Reich, because students can be interviewed while walking to class or waiting in line, as opposed to having StudentVoice representatives "sitting at tables harassing people."
"There's this notion that when taking a survey, it has to be inconvenient," Reich said. "All the information is on a portable computer so we can get people at times when they don't mind."
Reich, a UB School of Management alumnus and current UB law student, said his company is working as an intermediary between the administration and students. Reich described the survey as "an innovative approach to have a more truthful and realistic look at college students and what they think and what they want."
"UB has come under criticism as being a school that does not respond to the needs of students," he said. "I think this survey shows that UB is taking strides to get a student reaction and improve."
"This is a very different survey," he added. "There are no 'yes or no' answers."
In addition to information acquired through the survey, Ferguson said that accepted graduate students who ultimately opt for other universities will be contacted and interviewed regarding what factors compelled them not to choose UB as the place to pursue their studies.
Ferguson noted UB's desire to enhance communication with graduate students by improving both print and electronic resources. The university is working with graduate departments to improve centralized Web sites and e-mail systems.
"A lot of people on the outside say that UB is too big to be friendly," said Ferguson. "Sometimes it's hard for us to make people aware of what's available at UB."
Another recruitment factor that has received a great deal of university attention is the issue of low graduate teaching assistant stipends. Ferguson explained that some students choose to attend other universities because graduate teaching stipends are higher elsewhere.
"The deans have been focused on improving stipends so graduate students can get more rewards for the work that they do," she said.
The stipend issue will be discussed at a Faculty Senate meeting this Wednesday.
Although the survey will not be conducted annually, Ferguson said UB will attempt to conduct the survey every other year or every few years to see if responses remain consistent.
"As times change, we want to be responsive to student needs and provide the best environment for our graduate students that we possibly can," Ferguson said. "It's a pretty big undertaking."