National Household Education Surveys Program of 2019: Qualitative Study of Nonresponding Addresses

Ashley Kaiser
Scott Pulizzi

Over the past few decades, surveys have faced persistent declines in response rates. The National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) National Household Education Survey (NHES)—a repeated cross-sectional household survey that uses an address-based sample—has not escaped this trend.

A qualitative study of nonrespondent addresses to the 2019 administration of the NHES (NHES:2019) was conducted to better understand the drivers of nonresponse to mail-based household surveys in general—and to the NHES in particular—and to provide actionable information on how to combat this growing problem.

The study included two components:

  1. 85 in-depth, qualitative interviews; and
  2. 760 address observations. AIR worked with NCES to design the study, conducted the data collection, and wrote a report summarizing the study’s findings.

Key Findings

  • Nonrespondents were classified into typology groups—such as “not enough time,” “negative attitudes toward the federal government,” “federal government already has my information,” and “not relevant to me”—that provide a starting point for understanding the primary drivers of nonresponse.
  • Unless they tended to open all or most of their mail, interview participants took numerous cues from envelopes into account when deciding how to sort and process mail, such as whether it was addressed to them personally, the degree of officialness, and the sender.
  • Three main features of the NHES mailings influenced interview participants’ reaction to them: (1) the perceived importance of the mailings, (2) the personal relevance of the survey topic, and (3) the perceived burden or intrusiveness of the request.
  • Privacy or security concerns, interest in outdoor living, and outdoor decor were the most commonly observed address characteristics. Indicators of other characteristics or interests were observed for very few addresses, suggesting that most households do not place items outside of the home that shed light on their values or interests.

These and other findings in the report are useful for better understanding the drivers of nonresponse to the NHES and to mail-based surveys more broadly; they will be used to make refinements to the design of the 2023 administration of the NHES.