What is a DEI Survey?

by | Nov 2, 2022 | Climate Surveys, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Higher Education

Simply put, the purpose of a diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI study is to examine the lived experiences, perceptions, and attitudes of students, faculty, and staff on a university or college campus.

DEI surveys may ask about personal experiences with harassment, bias, or discrimination, and impressions of the overall atmosphere (or climate) at the institution. They help to evaluate if and how the campus community supports diversity, equity, and inclusion through resources and initiatives. The goal is to enact positive change on campus and measure it over time. 

“Effective DEI policies are grounded in good data.” 

– Josh Patterson, Research Director (Higher Education Studies) at SoundRocket

Higher ed institutions may use DEI survey data to evaluate current inclusion and equity efforts on campus and to inform meaningful ways to improve campus practices and policies. Collecting good data on DEI issues requires strategic and thoughtful survey design and implementation.

Here are some expert tips for your next DEI survey:

 1. Use inclusive demographic questions

First, be mindful and deliberate in how you approach your opening demographic questions. The wording you choose sets the tone of the survey. For some, questions regarding racial or ethnic groupings don’t have clear-cut answers. Using survey questions that give people the option to “select all that apply” may alleviate the risk of oversimplification and alienation. Seek resources – or speak with experts that have successfully used and tested inclusive demographic questions.

2. Safeguard for confidentiality 

Given the sensitive nature of DEI studies, you have a duty to protect the privacy of respondents’ data. Use a secure survey tool that encrypts data to safeguard your respondents’ identity. Then, address how you will ensure data privacy at the outset of the survey, using simple and straightforward language. This may help people feel more comfortable when completing your questionnaire. Hopefully, this will translate into more frank responses and higher survey response rates. 

Alternatively, you can carry out your campus DEI survey through a third party (like us!), who can ensure confidentiality and filter out sensitive data before it reaches anyone associated with your institution. Third party organizations can serve as a firewall between the campus community and the college or university. They ensure that only aggregated and de-identified data is shared. Moreover, data management techniques can be applied in reporting, to protect against identification of unique responses.

Download our 60+ Example Key Measures for Campus Climate Surveys.

3. Make most questions optional 

While many people are happy to respond to any and all questions in full, some may struggle to answer questions on delicate topics, or some questions may just not apply to them. Give people the option to skip questions. This can introduce issues related to item non-response, however it reduces respondent frustration and, in turn, lowers survey breakoff.  

The most actionable survey responses are those that answer each question. So, to reduce the chance of people actually skipping questions, be strategic and thoughtful in how you word them. DEI survey questions should be simple, specific, and sensitive. It is important to give appropriate and representative response options. Sometimes a short preamble can give helpful context to a question. Consider including an open-ended response option. For example, a text box would give people the space to craft their own personal response to a question.  

4. Set out and share your objectives

Being precise about your DEI study’s goals is vital. Explain how student, staff, and faculty input will help guide or alter your institution’s approach to DEI. Clear communication will help to build trust, interest, and involvement. And then, importantly, follow through (see #6). 

5. Promote data transparency 

Potential respondents may worry that survey responses will be either inadvertently or deliberately ignored. Make a commitment to sharing outcomes and taking action. To that end, a summary of the response rates, survey results, opportunities for change, and historical or benchmark comparisons should be available to the community. Tell people this data will be available at the outset of the survey.

If you’re surveying a large institution, it’s likely some departments, colleges, or other populations are addressing DEI issues more successfully than others. Evaluate the findings as a whole, but also make sure to run the analyses for helpful comparisons.

6. Commit to change

When your DEI survey is done and the results have been communicated, make use of them. You’ll build trust in your community and improve your chances at honest, frequent participation in future campus climate surveys.

7. Don’t reinvent the wheel

Finally, enlisting survey science experts will increase your survey and reporting quality and ease the burden of your survey design. Turning to third party organizations that have previously designed and tested DEI survey instruments may help you efficiently get your project underway.  

This is where we come in.

At SoundRocket, we have been designing and conducting DEI studies for higher ed institutions for decades. We have statistical sampling expertise, experience with responsive design, and have published strategies on how to get better response rates on campus climate surveys. Our instruments were developed by campus climate (DEI and sexual misconduct) researchers and professionals in higher ed, and optimized by survey science experts. We even have experience fielding surveys at the behest of the Department of Justice and in compliance with statutes in multiple states. We are committed to a standard of excellence in research ethics and data use, and can support your efforts to field a confidential survey to collect high quality data.

If you have a DEI survey project on your plate, let’s talk.

About the Author


Understanding human behavior—individually and in groups—drives our curiosity, our purpose, and our science. We are experts in social science research. We see the study of humans as an ongoing negotiation between multiple stakeholders: scientists, research funders, academia, corporations, and study participants.