Universal Mentors Association

American Council on Education to join UCLA in managing Freshman Survey


Fifty years ago, one of higher education’s foremost researchers, the late Alexander (Sandy) Astin, left his professional home at the American Council on Education for the University of California, Los Angeles—taking his prized creation, the Freshman Survey, with him. The longitudinal survey, an annual look at the experiences, attitudes and behaviors of incoming college students, has for decades been a crucial source of information and insight to help college administrators and instructors track changes in the students they serve.

Now, the survey is coming home, in a way. ACE, which last year reached an agreement with the Carnegie Foundation to take over its major classification of colleges and universities, announced today that it will join UCLA’s National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing in managing the Higher Education Research Institute, which produces the Freshman Survey and other key pieces of higher ed research.

ACE and the UCLA center will, in partnership, immediately begin managing HERI’s suite of surveys (which include several studies of students, a survey of faculty members and a climate survey of staff members), and by 2025 they will develop a new structure to ensure the institute’s viability going forward, Hironao Okahana, assistant vice president for research at ACE, said in an interview.

The partnership is a logical one for numerous reasons. ACE aims to supplement a research program that focuses mostly on college presidents and issues such as diversity. ACE’s research portfolio eroded during much of the 2010s, but President Ted Mitchell has sought to reinforce it, and incorporating “the prominent institute researching all aspects of the millions of students who pursue postsecondary education” will add a “transformative component” to ACE’s research work, Okahana said in a news release. In the interview, he said he envisioned ACE and UCLA would work to update the HERI studies to “really bring insights about students that college presidents can use.”

Through its management of the GED program and its programs that evaluate credits of nontraditional education and training providers, ACE has long had a focus on what many call “today’s students”—working adults, veterans, student parents and others who don’t fit the traditional mold of 18- to 22-year old residential students.

ACE’s involvement in reshaping HERI could result in it becoming less focused on traditional incoming students (as the Freshman Survey is), which is a potential upside of the partnership, said Jillian Kinzie, associate director for the Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement Institute at Indiana University.

Kinzie said the combination of “these two reputable, well-established, long-serving organizations” could benefit the field of higher education research, especially if it provides a stronger financial footing for the UCLA institute, which has struggled in recent years.

But some aspects of the arrangement worry Kinzie, too, especially by bringing the previously independent Higher Education Research Institute under the umbrella—if not the control—of ACE, which is a membership organization that advocates (or lobbies, though its officials dislike that term) on behalf of colleges and universities.

“I have some concerns about how the relationship might constrain HERI’s independent research operations, since it will be performing now in the service of ACE,” said Kinzie. “It also has the potential to really privilege [HERI and its work] as the sole informative source of higher education research. We’re better off when we let a thousand flowers bloom.” (Similar issues were raised by some observers when ACE agreed to take over the Carnegie Classifications.

Okahana said issues of potential conflict of interest “have not come up” in the discussions around ACE teaming up to manage the research institute.

“Yes, we are a member association, and we have a public advocacy capacity” in support of colleges, he said. “But we also position ourselves to champion postsecondary learners themselves, and we bring rigor to our work, which will continue to be at the highest level.”


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