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Stillwater measures OSU student perceptions of community in groundbreaking survey

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Media Contact: Rebecca Eastham, Ph.D. | Director, Spears Center for the Future of Work | 405-744-5139 |

Leaders in Stillwater took a groundbreaking step in their ongoing effort to engage all stakeholders in creating a more vibrant community.

They reached out to Oklahoma State University students to ask some specific questions about the quality of life, the people, the institutions, opportunities and challenges in their town and university.

The results of this Quality of Life study — sponsored by Vibrant Stillwater, a coalition of citizens and local leaders looking to revitalize the community —  reveal that 81% of students ranked their quality of life overall as excellent or good. It also revealed that while 61% of students feel their relationship with Stillwater residents was excellent or good, only 45% felt connected to Stillwater residents.

“Communities don’t always think to measure college students’ perceptions of their relation with the community itself. It’s pretty visionary,” said Quint Studer, founder of Vibrant Community Partners. “First, the findings show that OSU has done a tremendous job building a welcoming and nurturing environment on campus and now we have to take that further and help Stillwater create more of a sense of belonging for current OSU students and attract future ones.   

“Today, people choose where they want to live and then look for a job. And the same things that attract young people also make the rest of the community happy as well.”

People tend to think of students as transitory, but this is not always the case. Students often settle down in their college town, becoming part of the workforce or starting their own businesses. Or they return to their college town later in life.

This is obviously more likely to happen when a) they feel a strong sense of connection with the community while they’re in college, and b) when that community has plenty of career opportunities and other attractive qualities.

”At a time when companies are struggling to fill jobs, it’s urgent to make sure Stillwater is a great place to live for everyone to live and work, college students included,” said Rebecca Eastham, an OSU faculty member and part of the Vibrant Stillwater Steering Committee. “While it’s nice that they’re here to fill some jobs now, that’s the short game. The long game is creating a more vibrant Stillwater so they’ll want to stay here and bolster our talent base.”

The QOL survey is a good starting point to see where Stillwater excels and where it could improve, both in the short term (creating that vital sense of connection and belonging with OSU students) and in the long term (becoming a magnet for talent and creating a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem).

The online survey was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy out of Washington, D.C. It took place from March 21st to April 22nd with 480 OSU students participating. Many of the questions are the same ones found on the Stillwater Quality of Life Survey that was conducted in September 2021.

Key objectives included documenting OSU students’ rating of the overall quality of life in Stillwater, understanding and measuring the strength of connections and relationships between students and determining the likelihood of students staying in Stillwater after they graduate (as well as reasons why they would not choose to stay).

Overall findings were positive, with 81% of students ranking their quality of life in Stillwater as “excellent” or “good” and 61% saying that the City of Stillwater is on the right track. There were, however, some opportunities for improvement. For example, only about three out of 10 students indicated they’d consider staying in Stillwater post-graduation. NOTE: See attached tipsheet for more details.

“This info will help us shape our strategic planning as we figure out how to attract young talent,” Eastham said. “The goal now is to take this data and turn it to knowledge and, hopefully, wisdom through establishment of a work group that will comprise representatives from key departments from within the Division of Student Affairs, student representatives, local business and the nonprofit sector in Stillwater. Dr. Doug Hallenbeck, vice president of Student Affairs, has given his full support to bringing this work group together to tackle some of these improvements. We expect to begin that work this fall.”

Here are some of the key takeaways from the survey:


o   OSU students believe they have a very good quality of life at OSU and in Stillwater.

o   Students feel a strong connection to their OSU community and faculty.

o   There is an especially strong bond if students are on campus and strongest with those living in a fraternity or sorority.

o   They appreciate the safe and open spaces and brick and mortar stores in Stillwater.

o   They support efforts to create deeper connections between Stillwater institutions.

o   Faith-based organizations have done a good job with students.


o   Creating career opportunities for students in Stillwater.

o   Asking them to join community organizations and connecting through merchants, professors and faith-based organizations whom they have the most positive relationship with.

o   While there are a good mix of bars and nightlife, there needs to be opportunities for students under 21 and those who are looking for different experiences including cultural ones that excite them.

Larry Harris, principal at Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, says he hopes other college towns will follow Stillwater’s lead.

“This is a win/win for OSU and Stillwater. Students thrive when they feel a sense of belonging — and setting them up to thrive is the mission of higher education,” Harris said. “Research shows this sense of belonging is critical, and it can extend beyond campus. Universities that embrace this approach will be leaders in student life enrichment. And Stillwater benefits because it is improving the odds that students will engage in the community and perhaps even become permanent residents.”

Eastham is incredibly excited about integrating the OSU survey findings into Vibrant Stillwater’s larger efforts to increase civic engagement and encourage all citizens to work toward a brighter future for our city.

“The next step is two-pronged: 1) keep working to create a more vibrant community in general, and 2) encourage local organizations and groups to proactively engage with college students to create a sense of belonging with an eye toward making them long-term community partners,” Eastham said. 

TIPSHEET: How OSU students see Stillwater: Some compelling facts & figures

  • 81% of students ranked their quality of life in Stillwater as excellent or good.
  • Quality of life factors that rated highest include:

o   Public safety/low crime;

o   Availability of outdoor parks and open space;

o   Welcoming and inviting to people of diverse backgrounds. 

  • Quality of Life factors that were rated the lowest were:

o   Availability of cultural opportunities like theater, museums and music;

o   Offering job opportunities in your field. 

  • 66% felt connected to a local Stillwater brick and mortar store but only half of students felt a connection to Stillwater businesses or organizations that relate to student careers. 
  • 45% felt connected to Stillwater residents  and 64% said the overall relationship between residents and students was excellent or good. 
  • 63% of Students shared they had not been personally invited to join a Stillwater Group or organization showing that “relationship” and deeper connection are different.
  • For career opportunities, 50% were employed part time in Stillwater and 7% full time. Only 41% had participated in career related internship or employment while attending OSU but of those 60% had experienced some of that experience in Stillwater. This equates to approximately 25% of the students.  
  • This data translated into about only three out of 10 students considering staying in Stillwater post-graduation mainly due to lack of entertainment/cultural opportunities, lack of urban setting and business opportunities.
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