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Student Social Climate Survey, Fall 2010

Introduction and Summary of Findings

In fall 2010 we conducted an online survey of the CU-Boulder campus social climate. CU-Boulder's Office of Planning, Budget and Analysis has conducted this survey about every four years since 1994. All enrolled, degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate students (including those in Law) who had an email address and who had not requested that their personal directory information be kept private -- almost 30,000 students -- were invited to participate in the survey. We asked students to tell us about:

  • their level of comfort on the Boulder campus and in the community
  • the extent to which they feel they fit in and are welcome at CU-Boulder
  • their perceptions of respect accorded students who belong to various of the many diverse groups of people on campus
  • how often they hear negative remarks or see negative behaviors targeted at others based on group membership
  • their perceptions of how well course instructors and course offerings address issues related to social diversity.

We received completed questionnaires from 6,125 undergraduates and 1,652 graduate students, a total of 7,777 students, for a response rate of 26%. Response rates were somewhat higher for women (30%) than for men (23%), for graduate students (32%) than for undergraduates (25%), and for engineering students (32%) than for students in other schools and colleges (24-29%).

Overwhelming majorities of respondents had an approving view of the campus's social climate -- the extent to which CU-Boulder makes students feel welcome, valued and supported. Around four in five respondents reported feeling intellectually stimulated often or very often. A similar proportion said they felt welcome and accepted, and nearly nine in ten said they felt comfortable in their classes.

The favorable view of CU-Boulder's social climate was generally shared by all subgroups studied -- men and women, undergraduate and graduate students, students in all of the university's schools and colleges, politically liberal and conservative students, students in fraternities and sororities, students who are the first in their family to attend college, gay and straight students, students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, students of different races and ethnicities, students with physical or psychological disabilities, nontraditional-age students, students who entered as freshmen and transfers, international students, students affiliated with the military, and students with different religious affiliations, including Catholics, other Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and nonbelievers. Membership in these self-identified subgroups was determined using survey responses provided by the students.

Overall, students described the campus as friendly and welcoming, with 80 percent of both undergraduate and graduate students reporting feeling welcome and accepted either often or very often. Eighty-eight percent said they feel comfortable in their classes, and 80 percent reported feeling intellectually stimulated. Large majorities described CU-Boulder as "accepting of diverse perspectives" in the classroom, 81 percent, and outside the classroom, 63 percent.

On a broad measure of feeling welcome and comfortable on campus and in the Boulder community (the Positive Social Climate scale; see below), students who self-identified in diverse subgroups generally reported a positive experience -- averaging about 4 on the 5-point scale. Although the positive assessment of the campus's social climate was shared across all subgroups, two subgroups of at least 100 respondents did rate it slightly lower -- around 3.5 -- African-American students and students who characterized themselves as having a psychological or psychiatric disability such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Their ratings were, however, still above the scale midpoint of 3.0. There was also a tendency for slightly less positive evaluations of the campus social climate by GLBT students, nontraditional-age students, students of lower socioeconomic status, very liberal students, very conservative students, students not affiliated with a fraternity or sorority, transfer students, and students affiliated with the Buddhist and Muslim faiths. Their ratings were, nevertheless, well above the neutral point on the scale.

Comprising 149 scaled questions, plus another six open-ended questions, the survey collected a massive amount of information -- over a million responses to the ratings, and nearly 23,000 written comments, amounting to half a million words. The thousands of student comments include praise for particular classes that addressed diversity issues, suggestions to increase enrollment of international students and to make tuition more affordable for low-income students, reports of uncomfortable situations involving derogatory comments about women or gays or people of color, descriptions of personal experiences with religious or political prejudice, and accounts of situations that led to better understanding between people of different backgrounds. One student wrote, "Thanks for continuing to educate people on these issues, I feel like a much bigger and better person since I came to CU."

Differences in survey results across 2001, 2006, and 2010 indicate an overall trend of small but consistent and wide-ranging improvements in the social climate on the CU-Boulder campus. For example, students' level of comfort taking part in campus social life was higher in 2010, as were the average levels of feeling welcome, accepted, supported and intellectually stimulated at CU-Boulder. In all three surveys, African-American undergraduate students perceived the climate at CU-Boulder somewhat less favorably than did undergraduates of other races/ethnicities. Compared with 2001 and 2006, however, African-American undergraduates in 2010 reported feeling more welcome on the Boulder campus and more comfortable participating in campus social life and life on the Hill. Other students also reported feeling more welcome and comfortable in 2010.

A campus advisory board representing a wide range of campus units helped guide the survey and data analysis, including the assistant vice chancellor for diversity, equity and community engagement, the associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education, faculty, and representatives from student government, Disability Services, the GLBT Resource Center, Religious Campus Organizations, Wardenburg Health Center, the Office of Orientation, the Center for Multicultural Affairs, and the Women's Resource Center.

The survey's findings are used primarily to evaluate, revise, and develop programs and policies that promote student success by helping all students feel like valued members of the university community. PBA and members of the survey's advisory board have been working together to distribute the results and encourage their use throughout the university community.

Results for Subgroups

Using 17 measurement scales, the campus social climate data were analyzed separately for selected groups to examine how various students groups' experiences on the Boulder campus differ. Graphs and text summaries of these analyses are available:

Subgroup distributions on the Positive Social Climate (PSC) scale.  The PSC is a 17-item omnibus summary measure of how welcome and comfortable students feel on campus and in the Boulder community. The scale serves as an overall indicator on which to compare various subgroups of survey respondents. Results of these comparisons are described above.  Follow the link for a separate document with further detail, including graphs and tables of scale-score distributions for each subgroup and notes on scale construction. 

Survey Respondents

The Student Social Climate Survey participants comprise a diverse group of people. A demographic table shows numbers and percentages of survey respondents in groups based on gender identification,  race/ethnicity, Colorado residency, religious affiliation, political orientation, disability status, and sexual orientation. These statistics are provided for all students combined and by class level (i.e., undergraduate or graduate). The group membership information is largely based on students' responses to demographic items from the survey questionnaire. Some information is from student records data and noted as such in the narrative.

  • A slightly higher percentage of respondents were females (53%; data from student records) compared with the overall population of degree-seeking students (46%; see Table 5.2).
    • In response to the survey item that asked about gender-identification, 52%  indicated they were female; 46%, male; 1.3% chose not to respond; and less than one percent reported they were either genderqueer/gendervariant (0.4%), transgender (0.1%), or other (0.2%).  
  • According to student records data, collected on the application for admission in effect prior to 2010, the proportions of study participants in the different race/ethnicity groups were essentially the same as in the population of degree-seeking students (see Table 5.4)--75% white, 7% Hispanic, 6% Asian American, 2% Black/African American,  1% Native American, 5% international, and 5% unknown. Additional details, compiled from a set of demographic-related survey items, shows how these data compare to survey respondents' self-reported race/ethnicity groups.
  • The proportion of graduate student respondents who are Colorado residents (65%) was essentially the same as in the population of degree-seeking graduate students at CU-Boulder (66%; see Table 1.1). A somewhat higher percentage of undergraduate respondents are Colorado residents (73%) compared with the population of undergraduate degree-seeking students (65%; see Table 1.1).
  • Large percentages of students reported that they are "neither spiritual nor religious" (28%) or "spiritual but not religious" (25%). Just over a third of students are either Catholic (14%) or affiliated with another Christian faith (21%). Smaller proportions are Buddhist (2%), Jewish (4%), or Muslim (1%). Somewhat higher percentages of undergraduate students, compared with graduate students, reported affiliation with a religious faith--for example, 15% of undergraduates reported affiliation with the Catholic religion, compared to 10% of graduate students. In addition, about one-quarter of all students selected "Christian other than Catholic" (21%) or "other religion" as their religious spiritual preference and wrote a description of these affiliations.
  • Nearly half of the students (48%) described themselves as politically liberal, and 16% described themselves as conservative. About equal numbers reported that they are politically moderate (15%) or "not particularly political" (17%). A higher percentage of undergraduate students, compared with graduate students, described themselves as politically conservative (18% vs 8%). An additional 5% reported having an "other political orientation" and provided a written description.
  • The great majority of students (86%) reported that they do not consider themselves to have a disability. The most commonly reported disabilities were attention deficit disorder (5% of students) and psychological/psychiatric disabilities (4% of students). About 2% of students also provided written comments describing "multiple disabilities" (1%) or "other disabilities" (1%).
  • The greatest proportion of students described their sexual orientation as heterosexual (82%). Eight percent described themselves as asexual, and smaller percentages reported that they are bisexual (4%), gay (2%), lesbian (1%), or queer (1%). An additional 1% of students also provided "other sexual orientation" comments.

Additional data collected by the survey reflect other dimensions of diversity, which have been summarized in a table. Highlights from these data are provided below:

  • 16% of both graduate and undergraduate survey participants reported that they are first-generation students (i.e., the first in their families to attend college).
  • Just over half (52%) of the graduate students described themselves as a "non-traditional age student," compared with 12% of the undergraduates.
  • Almost all (90%) of the undergraduates reported that they are native English speakers, compared with 78% of the graduate students.
  • 12% of undergraduate students are members of a sorority or fraternity. This figure is consistent with recent campus data indicating that 9% and 16% of undergraduate men and women, respectively, join fraternities or sororities.
  • A small number of survey respondents (4%) reported that they are military veterans or otherwise affiliated with the military (e.g., ROTC, the Reserves).

A new set of items on this year's survey is related to many of the above-mentioned dimensions of diversity. For these items, respondents were asked to rate how strongly they identified with various aspects of their social identity, such as gender, age, socioeconomic status, political affiliation or beliefs, etc. Data presented in a summary table show percentages of respondents who "strongly" or "very strongly" identified with these various aspects. A few highlights are presented below.

  • In general, undergraduates were more likely than graduate students to report "strongly" or "very strongly" identifying with one or more of the social identity aspects. One exception to this was the "political affiliation or beliefs" aspect.
  • Approximately half or more of undergraduates indicated they strongly identify with their age, sexual orientation, and gender identity (50%, 58% and 61%, respectively).  Only about a third to half of graduate students reported identifying strongly with these aspects (38%, 41% and 48%, respectively).
  • More than one-third of undergraduates strongly identify with their national origin (41%), their citizenship/immigration status (37%) and their race/ethnicity (35%). Fewer than one-third of graduate students strongly identify with these same aspects (32%, 30% and 27%, respectively).
  • A third of undergraduates indicated they strongly identify with their socioeconomic status (SES), whereas only one-fourth of graduate students indicated strongly identifying with their SES.
  • Approximately one-fourth of both undergraduates and graduate students said they strongly identify with religious/spiritual affiliations and beliefs (27% and 24%, respectively); about one-third of each group also reported they identify strongly with political affiliations or beliefs.

In examining associations of various student identity characteristics (such as race/ethnicity or political beliefs) with other variables assessed in the survey, it is important to be aware that there are some modest but significant correlations among some of the identity indicators. In other words, there are membership overlaps in some of the student identity groups. For example:

  • Political conservatism is positively correlated with self-identification as a Christian (r=.44) and affiliation with an institutionalized religion (.37).
  • Political conservatism is negatively correlated with GLBT status (-.17) and self-identification as "neither spiritual nor religious" (-.20).
  • Self-identification as a Christian is more strongly associated with Hispanic ethnicity (.09) than with being white (.01), Asian American (-.03), African American (.03), or Native American (.01).
  • GLBT status is negatively correlated with affiliation with an institutionalized religion (-.14).

Users of the descriptive statistics in the large Excel file (described below) should, therefore, filter on multiple identifiers to more fully explore the nature of the findings.

Further Data Highlights

For reference, we include, in brackets, the questionnaire page locations (e.g., p6) of the data presented below . For those who want more detailed information about the statistics reported here, we also include (in the brackets) a notation that directs the user to the location of the statistical data in the large Excel file. That notation refers to the "item stem" column in the Excel file and specifies the data filter to use to isolate that item for examination (e.g., "During the current semester, how often have you felt").

Overall, students rate the campus as friendly and welcoming. A majority of both undergraduate and graduate students report that CU-Boulder is friendly, both inside  and outside of the classroom environment [p7; Inside/Outside the classroom, CU-Boulder is]. The great majority (about 80%) of both undergraduates and graduates report feeling "welcome" and "accepted" either "often" or "very often." About 60% report feeling "valued" and "supported" either "often" or "very often." [p1; During the current semester, how often have you felt]

The campus community values diversity. More than three quarters of both undergraduates and graduates indicated that course instructors, university staff and administrators, and members of student government value diversity. Smaller proportions of students (about 60%) reported that CU-Boulder students and the Boulder community value diversity. [p7; How much do these groups at CU-Boulder value diversity?]

Although nearly 60% of students think that diversity should be a high priority for the university, only about 40% think that diversity is at present a high priority at CU-Boulder. [p7; in the "Item" column of the Excel file, filter on "In your opinion, how high of a priority ..."]

The great majority of students (90-97%) reported that they very seldom witness faculty direct derogatory comments or behaviors toward people in various demographic and social identity groups based on race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, socioeconomic status, military status/involvement, fraternity/sorority membership, or religious affiliation/belief. A somewhat lower proportion of students (84%) reported that they very seldom witness faculty direct such comments/behavior toward people with conservative political beliefs; 94% reported that they very seldom witness faculty direct such comments/behavior toward people with liberal political beliefs. [p4; During the current semester, how often have you witnessed a COURSE INSTRUCTOR ...]

The majority of students (51-89%) reported that they very seldom witness students direct derogatory comments or behaviors toward people in the various demographic and social identity groups. Higher proportions of graduate students (64-96%) than undergraduate students (44-87%) indicated that they very seldom witness students direct such comments/behavior. More than 10% of those who took the survey reported that they often witness students direct such comments/behavior toward racial or ethnic minorities (11%); women (14%); gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender people (13%); fraternity or sorority members (27%); people with a particular religious/spiritual affiliation/belief (11%); or people with conservative political beliefs (21%). In general, substantially greater proportions of undergraduate students, compared with graduate students, reported witnessing students' derogatory comments/behavior toward these groups. [p4; During the current semester, how often have you witnessed a STUDENT ...]

Diversity is fostered and respected in the classroom. Substantial percentages of both undergraduate and graduate students reported that they "agree" or "strongly agree" that CU-Boulder course instructors "help to foster a classroom environment that is open and respectful of diverse beliefs and opinions that students express in class" (69%) and that classroom instructors "provide opportunities for students of different backgrounds to interact with one another in class (e.g., in classroom discussions, on projects or on class assignments)" (61%). Just under half (46%) of students agreed or strongly agreed that instructors "help students to better understand the different perspectives of diverse cultures and social groups." [p6; My course instructors at CU-Boulder]These data are summarized in this graph:

As can be seen in the graph below, the majority of students have a positive impression of the classroom environment at CU-Boulder. Classes are described as respectful, civil, friendly, and accepting of diverse groups of people. Very small percentages of students (1-6%) characterize the classroom environment in negative terms--for example as disrespectful (3%), homophobic (4%), racist (4%), sexist (6%), or not accepting of diverse religious beliefs (5%). [p7; INSIDE the classroom, CU-Boulder is]

Although students also perceive the campus environment outside the classroom as generally positive, lower percentages of students describe that environment as respectful, civil, friendly, and accepting of diverse groups of people. Noticeable proportions of students describe the campus environment outside the classroom in negative terms--for example, as disrespectful (13%), homophobic (15%), racist (14%), sexist (13%), or not accepting of diverse religious beliefs (12%). [p7; OUTSIDE the classroom, CU-Boulder is] These data are summarized in the graph below.

Students perceive some limitations with respect to diversity in the undergraduate core curriculum. Just over half (53%) of undergraduates reported that they "agree" or "strongly agree" that courses offered to fulfill the Arts & Sciences core curriculum requirements in Human Diversity Arts & Sciences "adequately address the topic of human diversity (i.e., issues related to different cultural and social groups)." A smaller proportion (43%) of undergraduates, however, agreed or strongly agreed that "There are sufficient numbers and variety of courses offered in this area to choose from." [p6; Have you already fulfilled ...]

Students from diverse groups are respected at CU-Boulder. About 60% of students agree or strongly agree that students at CU-Boulder are respected regardless of their race or ethnicity (60%), gender identity (62%), sexual orientation (58%), age (64%), national origin (65%), physical disabilities (63%), psychological or learning disabilities (62%), veteran status or military involvement (71%), or religious/spiritual affiliation or beliefs (56%). Somewhat lower percentages of students agree or strongly agree that students at CU-Boulder are respected regardless of their socioeconomic status (51%), fraternity or sorority affiliation (44%), or political affiliation or beliefs (48%). An additional 25% or so of students "agree somewhat" that students in each of these 12 categories are respected at CU-Boulder. [p3; Indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with each of the following statements] These data are visually summarized in this graph:

Getting Additional Statistics

Descriptive statistics for all quantitative (multiple-choice) items in the 2010 Student Social Climate Survey are available in a large Excel file, for the entire campus and by subgroup (e.g., undergraduate/graduate, school/college, citizenship, disability status, gender, gender identity, political orientation, race/ethnicity, religious preference, sexual orientation, first-generation students, native-English speakers, non-traditional-age students, sorority and fraternity members, veterans).  The image below shows an example of information that can be obtained from this file. Not shown in the image, because of space limitations, are the percentages of respondents who selected "very often," "often," etc.; the standard deviation of the responses; the percentage of students who did not respond or responded "not applicable"; and other information.

Example of information from Excel file of descriptive statistics


In this example, the data filters (inside the green circles) on "subgroup block" and "item" have been used to limit the display of statistics. Counts of respondents and means, for the item that asks students how often they have felt accepted during the current semester, are shown according to students' responses to the political orientation item.

When using the Excel of statistics, it can be helpful to refer to the questionnaire codebook. The codebook and the Excel both contain variable names, which can be used to locate particular items quickly. For example, the variable name for the item in the example above ("how often have you felt accepted") is "f_accept." (This variable name is not shown in the example above because of space limitations, but it is shown in a far right-hand column of the Excel itself.) If a person wishes to see this item as it was presented to students on the questionnaire, then the item can be located quickly via an electronic search of the questionnaire codebook for "f_accept."

Students' Comments from Open-Ended Items

The 2010 Student Social Climate Survey included a half dozen long open-ended questions that solicited students' comments about campus diversity issues. A great many students wrote thoughtful and extensive answers to these questions. An overwhelming total of 5,919 students (76% of survey respondents) answered at least one of these long open-ended questions. The questions, the numbers of students who submitted comments in response to each, and selected examples of the students' comments are listed below:

  • Please list the one course among ALL the courses you have taken at CU-Boulder that BEST addressed ISSUES OF DIVERSITY, and describe what you LIKED MOST about it. (n=3,106)
    • SLHS 1010 Disabilities In Society. The content was excellent and the teacher did a great job exposing students to different types of disabilities and various views and opinions surrounding people with disabilities.
    • Sociology of Religion; I liked that it was informative about a lot of religions I had never learned about previously.
    • An EMus class on ethnomusicology. The professor helped destroy any uneducated prejudice about other cultures simply by exposure.
  • Based on your classroom experiences, how do you think faculty members and course instructors could help students in dealing with issues related to diversity? (n=4,313)
    • Talk about it more. Point it out, and how it impacts different points of view.
    • Assign groups and partners from different backgrounds, breaking up the established groups.
    • When someone makes a derogatory or controversial topic, for the professor to take the conversation up instead of letting it go. This many times becomes the big elephant in the room and in classes where discussion is key, the conversations get dropped, further isolating the student who the comment was aimed at.
  • What is the ONE thing you think CU-Boulder could do to help make this a more diverse and inclusive campus for all students? (n= 4,524)
    • Facilitate ways for men to deal with masculinity issues. Require students to take a course on diversity their first year on campus.
    • Make tuition affordable for low income families and provide more scholarship opportunities.
    • Increase international student enrollment.
  • Think of a situation or experience on campus or in the larger Boulder community this or last semester that made you feel uncomfortable. Please describe the situation and what made you feel uncomfortable. (n=4,891)
    • In my freshman engineering projects class, we needed to learn and be comfortable with lots of tools and manufacturing equipment. One of our labs required the use of a particular tool, that I volunteered to use. My male peers said "You don't know how to use that, you're a girl." Being one of the few femailes [sic] in engineering, I asserted myself and to learn how to use the tool and prove them wrong.
    • In the classroom environment it is not infrequent to hear derogatory comments about gay people. Even expressions which people do not mean as derogatory toward homosexuals, such as calling something "gay" can make a situation uncomfortable. However, I have had a professor tell a student to please use different language, which made me respect him very much.
    • Being the only person of color in the recreation center womens [sic] workout room. People staring but not speaking to me.
  • Think of a situation on campus this or last semester when someone helped to develop understanding between people of different backgrounds, lifestyles, cultures, etc. Please describe the situation and how it made you feel. (n=4,284)
    • The School of Education has a student group called RISE that is dedicated to promoting and understanding diversity. Their meetings are incredibly insightful and inspirational!
    • Speaking with students from China, India, etc to learn about their culture was/is eye opening
    • I have had several classes with a deaf person, and I think just seeing his translator helped me understand more about the difficulty of his disability. It was interesting to see how CU supports his learning and it made me happy to see that he was getting the same opportunities as everyone else in the class. Also, the translators are just fun to watch.
  • Any other suggestions or comments? (n= 1,741)
    • Allowing small praying areas for Muslim students in libraries and college buildings, if possible, due to the distance of the mosque from the University location.
    • Transfer students could possibly fall into a diversity category and it can be hard for them to find a group to which they fit in, since the beginning couple years is when you establish friends and groups.
    • Thanks for continuing to educate people on these issues, I feel like a much bigger and better person since I came to CU.

Students' verbatim comments from both long and short open-ended items in the survey are available in two very large Excel files. These files are password-protected and are intended to be used in improving or evaluating University units or programs, or in understanding and describing the University situation. Each file contains the same verbatim comments, but the files are organized differently. Comments in the first Excel are organized by student level (graduate/undergraduate), race/ethnicity, and gender; those in the second Excel are organized by college/school, Arts & Sciences division, student level, and gender. To obtain access to these comments, please complete a nondisclosure agreement.

In addition, the Excels contain students' responses to two sets of short open-ended questions that asked about: 1) places on- and off-campus where students felt comfortable, and 2) suggested courses and/or topic areas for the Human Diversity A&S core curriculum. Over 7,000 students answered at least one of the items in the first set, and almost 300 students gave responses on at least one item in the second set. (For this latter set, students were asked to respond only if they "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" with one or both statements that asked about the adequacy and number/variety of these courses.)

Last revision 02/12/13

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