The Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week. Founded in 1992, this institution has helped the University’s students and faculty conduct countless polls.
Although the Center’s main focus is graduate and undergraduate research, dozens of faculty members have taken advantage of its resources. Over the past quarter of a century, the Center has helped publish five books and 48 journal entries, which have been cited approximately 20,000 times.
Edward Freeland, the associate director of the Survey Research Center and a lecturer in the Wilson School, has noticed a considerable rise in the number of students taking advantage of original polling, as digital techniques have streamlined the process.
“We used to have a programmer write each survey,” said Freeland. “When we got the Qualtrics tool, everybody got to go online and set up their own survey. We were able to quadruple the number of surveys run through the Center with no change in staff.”
Freeland estimates that nearly 90 percent of the Center’s surveys are now conducted online.
Although it’s become easier to create surveys, Freeland noticed that there are some disparities in the response rates among University students. He estimates that nearly 90 percent of incoming first-years are eager to respond to polls.
“When you get to upperclassmen, however,” he said, “you start seeing a response rate around 15 or 20 percent.”
The Center uses a University email roster to conduct research, but only sends the minimum number of emails necessary for each project.
“We want to make sure that the burden of participating in these surveys are spread across the whole student body,” Freeland explained.
Freeland is especially worried, however, about increasingly low response rates to surveys sent outside the University.
“It’s getting harder and harder to make good estimates, especially in pre-election polls,” he said. “Increasingly, people are more and more reluctant to talk to pollsters.”
The Center did not help with any of the U.S. pre-election surveys, but did assist with local and statewide polling.
Professor Alan Krueger, professor of economics and public policy and director of the Survey Research Center, notes that response rates are decreasing, especially for political questions. He is concerned that a narrower slice of the population is being represented.
The Center is hoping to help reduce errors where it can. Funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Center is trying to understand measurement error in labor force surveys.
“We hope to have an impact in how the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects their data,” Krueger said.
The Center focuses more on cutting-edge data collection techniques than large-scale projects. Its recent projects have included social media, text-based surveys, and even sensor-based data collection.
“What’s really been rewarding is how creative the students have been,” Krueger said. He cited an example of a senior thesis that used a phone survey rather than a typical internet poll.
When asked about the biggest mistake undergraduates make when they approach the Survey Research Center for help, Krueger said simply, “They come too late.”
“We always are holding our breath after spring break,” said Freeland with a laugh. He and Kreuger explained that seniors sometimes realize they need data only after starting to write their thesis.
According to Naila Rahman, the assistant director of the Survey Research Center, the Center has mostly worked with the politics department, psychology department, and the Wilson School, but have helped many other departments. Rahman enjoys working directly with students in constructing and maintaining their surveys.
“It gives you so much information. You learn every day what’s going,” she said. “I believe that without surveys, nothing is possible. You need a survey to do anything. To sell a book, you need to know if it [will] sell. For everything, you need to do research. It just gives you a lot of wisdom.”