A student's college experience is determined by a seemingly infinite number of variables. However, demanding academics and loaded extracurricular schedules often overshadow other essential components. In an effort to ascertain the key factors that impact their students' experiences, seven liberal arts colleges are participating in the New England Consortium on Assessment and Student Learning (NECASL).

Funded by the Teagle Foundation, NECASL began as a collaborative project at Bates College. In the program's first year, Lee Cuba, a sociology professor at Wellesley College, led a group of investigators to design a qualitative panel study focused on the learning and decision making processes of students throughout their college careers.

The study, now in its fourth year, documents the college lives of roughly 200 students who matriculated with the Class of 2010 at Smith, Wellesley, Trinity, Middlebury, Colby, Bates and Bowdoin Colleges.

Cuba, who now serves as the principle investigator of the NECASL program, notes that the strengths of the NECASL program lie in its "real-time" design, explaining that "[the program is] trying to capture experiences as they happen. It's not retrospective."

Over the past four years, 30 to 40 randomly selected students at each college have contributed their experiences, decisions and emotions to the NECASL study through multiple interviews. Associate Professor of Education Nancy Jennings serves as Bowdoin's point of contact for NECASL. According to Jennings, the information collected thus far by the program is both remarkably enlightening and relevant.

"All of our institutions are using the data we've collected," she says. "It has helped us assess curriculum and explore new methods of how we measure student learning. Additionally, people are amazed at the level of retention we've had. Usually in a study like this you have enormous dropout rates—we don't."

Associate Professor of Psychology Suzanne Lovett also noted the program's many positive impacts for other students.

"An important thing to realize is that we have students interviewing students," she said. "They write schedules and analyze data. It's very applicable to some majors, and is a significant source of research experience."

"We're still trying to understand what we've learned," she said. "Right now we have an initiative to look at pre-academic and pre-major advising at Bowdoin. This program has given us an idea of how students and faculty view the advising process, and how different needs call for different kinds of guidance."

Additionally, the program has helped researchers broaden their perspective on how students learn.

"How do you define success?" Lovett asked. "There are all these different methods. Traditionally, schools have relied on GPA, but we're understanding that it's just one tiny piece of what it means to be successful."

While the NECASL program draws the majority of its data from the Class of 2010 panel study, the program has branched out to include a wider range of students.

"We have the students we're interviewing, but we've started to survey entire classes during their sophomore year to look at their experiences in a more broad manner," Lovett said. "In this way, we've gained a lot of information about how students across the board experience their institutions, and what needs to be improved."

One difficulty NECASL researchers have experienced with the sophomore survey is participation level; a large number of participants gives the researchers a better handle on how students experience a college, while a small number of student participants yields inaccurate and confusing results.

"Please do the survey," said Lovett. "It's your opportunity to give the college your voice. We take it very seriously."

As the Class of 2010 nears graduation, the NECASL program is preparing to follow the students through their first year after college.

The final data will be used much in the same way as information collected thus far: to help colleges understand the various factors that contribute to a positive college experience. Cuba commended the effort made by these schools to improve the experiences of their students.

"It's not just about being the best," he says. "It's about working to become better."