By their own account, the life of a Canadian University Undergraduate is a pretty satisfying one.

Regardless of educational institution attended, students from across the country report that they are at least “somewhat” satisfied with their overall educational experience; they are giving passing grades to their professors and are reasonably confident that their lessons will eventually prepare them for the workforce.

That however is the view of University life from 35,000 feet.

When analyzing the full breadth of the over 24,000 responses we received to the Second installment of the University Report Card, you cannot but be struck at how dramatically different the student experience is from one school to the next.

For example, Simon Fraser students rank its on-line library and teaching materials as one of the best in the nation, yet are among the most dissatisfied with their school spirit and the quality of student residences. At the other end of the country, students at University of Moncton rate their pubs, physical education facilities, parking, health and food services in the Top 5 best in Canada, but rank the quality of teaching and faculty knowledge of subject materials lower than any other reporting campus.

We even find huge disparities in satisfaction in what one would think are mutually aligned fields of endeavor. McGill students for example, give their school the absolutely best marks when it comes to its reputation among prospective employers and at the same time, give failing grades to their co-op programs. Even more starkly, Trent students rate their professors as the best anywhere, yet find themselves on the bottom of the list when it comes to applying any aspect of new technology, from hardware to on-line access.

What this tells us is that virtually every school has something about it that elicits a uniformly and enthusiastically positive response from those attending; and again, almost without exception, students can articulate something about their school that they find wanting. If this pattern was not so overwhelming, it might be written off as nothing more that that age-old tendency of “having to find something to complain about”. This however would be a disservice to discerning young adults and would wildly underestimate how much the decisions (or in some instances, non-decisions) of administrators effect and are felt by their student bodies.

For all the variety and diversity of student evaluations of their school however, an analysis of the findings reveal that if a University wants to create a rewarding and satisfying experience for their attendees there are some basic “table stakes” that they simply cannot ignore. By conducting a statistical analysis of responses to the 58 individual variables we investigated, we are able to determine what specific aspects of the University experience are most highly correlated with overall satisfaction. In other words, we are able to detect what are the most important determinants of an enjoyable and a less than enjoyable post secondary education.

To now one’s surprise, the students evaluation of teaching and their professors tops this list and has the greatest influence on overall satisfaction. A closer analysis of this however reveals that students consider “teaching” more than quality and knowledge professors. Teaching methods employed, faculty feedback and the access to faculty outside of the classroom hours are of equal importance to the caliber of the academic staff. In short, having the most qualified faculty may go some distance to engendering a positive student experience but only if faculty is available, responsive and innovative, inside and outside of the classroom.

Student’s evaluation of how well their education is preparing them for the workplace is closely aligned with teaching in generating a satisfied student body. Perhaps reflecting the pragmaticism of this generation, what they seem to be telling us is “teach us well, but also make sure that materials and programs are practical, relevant and can be applied to the real world”.

In apparent contraction of this pragmatic edge, the other side of the student satisfaction equation is largely hedonistic. School spirit, the freedom to express yourself and the simple opportunity to have fun on campus are also all highly correlated with satisfaction. The important of these considerations, along side more serious minded demands for quality teaching and job relevance, suggest that Canadian students are demanding a full life experience and not just a monastic and practical learning experience.

Finally a University’s physical plant also has a bearing on student’s assessment of their education. Classrooms and lecture halls as well as the actual attractiveness of the campus form a fourth tier of conditions that effect the overall satisfaction reported in this study.

Given these four priorities – teaching, workplace preparation, fun and physical space – it is no wonder that the highest levels of expressed satisfaction is being voiced from students attending Sherbrooke, Western, Guelph, Queens and Brock. These are Universities that, in the views of their students are “getting it right”. Each one rates in the top tier of satisfaction levels on these important aspects of student life. But even these are not without their blemishes and stand to improve the quality of education they offer by listening to the voice of their charges. Students at Sherbrooke give low marks for the convenience of class schedules; Western seems to have problems with their co-op program; spaces in courses and the registration process appears problematic at Guelph; Queen’s students recognize the lack of cultural diversity in their student body and seem to be gagging on the food that is served on that campus; and ranked 34th out of 38 schools, Brock’s library could stand to be improved.

Originally printed in a Globe and Mail Supplement