Were we ever really the happiest?


Maddie Brown

For two years in a row, Vanderbilt has been named the college with the happiest students by the Princeton Review. But last week, the new rankings placed Rice University in the number one spot. While financial aid and campus food are easy to measure, the idea of measuring happiness proves to be more subjective. How is this survey given out?  Is this ranking truly beneficial to the lives of college students? How does one measure happiness?

The Process

Each year, starting in mid-March, the process begins when Princeton Review distributes the electronic surveys to campuses and students across the country, according to David Soto, a co-author of The Best 381 Colleges. This past year, 143,000 students at 381 universities completed the survey. Some students receive the survey in an email from the university’s administration, but it is also open year-round to all students on the Princeton Review site.

It is unknown how many surveys Vanderbilt students filled out, Soto said.

“In some instances when we surveyed large state schools, we might get up to 5,000 surveys or in some smaller liberal art schools we may get a small subset of surveys,” he said. “But I don’t have numbers specific to the school. ”

The survey contains 86 questions, and the results of the “happiest students” ranking are based on students’ answers to the question “Overall, how happy are you?” said Soto, who has been working at the Princeton Review for fifteen years. Students can answer in one of five ways: strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree or strongly disagree.

A list of the top 20 schools for that specific category is then compiled based on students’ responses.  Between March and August, Soto and his team examine the data, complete quality assurance checks and calculate the results in order for the book to be published in August.

The Flaws

Ever since Vanderbilt was featured in the survey’s results, students have been wary of how a single survey question could be all encompassing of student happiness. The question on the survey, “Overall, how happy are you,” could be interpreted in several different ways.

“That has so many separate meanings,” said senior Rachel Miller. “It’s like ‘are you happy to be at a top 15 school’, ‘are you happy to graduate with a degree that will get you a job’ or ‘are you happy every single day of your life?’ The different manners in which students interpret and understand this question may greatly affect their answer. Yes, I am happy to be at a top 15 school, yes I am happy to graduate with a degree that will get me a job, but no I am not happy every single day.”

Student responses may even be skewed by how their day is going when they take the survey, as for most students, happiness fluctuates naturally, Miller said.

“If you ask someone, ‘are you happy?’, at 4:00 a.m. in Central Library during finals week, you’re going to get a different answer than the day after a football tailgate,” she said.

The way students rank their experience also varies, as answers like “strongly agree” and “agree” are hard to differentiate.

“On a ten point scale, my 4 or 5 could be different from someone else’s 4 or 5,” said sophomore transfer student Luke Cappellano. “They would have to ask more questions.”

Others may skew their responses based on their hopes rather than their reality.

“With self-reported surveys, you get a lot of self-correction that goes on,” Miller said. “You do not want to admit to yourself that you are not as happy as everyone else.”

Some students have proposed analyzing statistics surrounding student involvement, use of free time and number of campus resources in order to estimate total happiness. However, a ranking based on facts and statistics may not be the answer either.

“Even if someone checks off all the boxes to be happy, if they do not feel happy and it is not self-reported, you would not know that,” Miller notes. “It is a strange statistic that would have to be more carefully measured.”

Errors may certainly result from the ambiguous nature of the survey question, as it seems there may not be any way to quantify happiness. The results, which prove not to be statistically sound, have a significant impact on campus atmosphere nonetheless.

The Impact

The title of “happiest students” places pressure on students to appear happy constantly, according to Miller. However, for most people, this is not the reality.

“If you are not happy at Vanderbilt and everyone else is happy, it is isolating in a way because you feel like you cannot talk about it,” Miller said. “It can be a really alienating feeling.”

Mark Bandas, Associate Provost and Dean of Students, also voiced the concern that the environment this title creates can be worrisome, as students may be left feeling falsely inadequate if they are not happy.

“By focusing on this happiness ranking, students who are experiencing the normal ups and downs of college life or are struggling on campus may feel isolated or alone because they think everyone else is happy, and they are not,” Bandas said. “We know from our own data that that’s not true and that many, if not all, students on our campus have their own issues.”

On the other hand, the happiness ranking can be a factor in a student’s decision to attend Vanderbilt. When the Hustler asked 263 students whether the happiness ranking influenced their decision to attend the school, roughly 48 percent of students who knew of Vanderbilt’s ranking of “happiest students” reported that it influenced their decision to attend school here to some extent. Ten percent of students said that the survey strongly influenced their decision.

“I think it is something that could help make a decision between two schools that have the same exact offerings.” Cappellano said. “I definitely heard about it before coming. If everyone is really happy there, there is obviously something that is really special about this school. It did influence it a little bit.”

The Conclusion

Ultimately, the question remains whether or not Vanderbilt students truly are some of the happiest. Dean Bandas shared that internal surveys suggest that Vanderbilt students are satisfied with their campus experience.

In the same survey of 263 students conducted by the Hustler, a majority of undergraduates, 58 percent, reported feeling happier than friends at other universities. Cappellano suggests that Vanderbilt students are what make campus life at Vanderbilt one of the happiest in the country.

“For me, (happiness) would be getting on campus and immediately having a really good group of friends and having everyone at Vanderbilt be so welcoming and open to meeting new people.”