First-year students from underrepresented backgrounds less likely to be satisfied with college experience

In their first year of college, students of color and low-income students reported feeling less satisfied than their peers, according to a new report from the education research, technology, and consulting firm EAB. While a substantial majority of students said they feel satisfied with their college experience, students from historically underrepresented groups were more likely to experience identity-based harassment and to rely on mental health and academic support services to feel a sense of belonging on campus.

EAB surveyed 12,654 students from the high school Class of 2023, 89% of whom were currently enrolled in a college or university at the time of the survey. Taken at the midpoint of their first year from Feb. 8 to March 4, 2024, the survey looked at students’ experiences and obstacles to enrolling or staying in college, so that schools can recalibrate their recruitment and enrollment strategies to meet current and prospective students’ concerns about their wellbeing.

“While college campuses have faced criticism in recent years for creating excessively sheltering spaces for students, this data indicates the real sense of exclusion that many students feel on campus,” the report says.

Satisfaction and belonging

Eighty-four percent of respondents reported feeling satisfied with their college experience this winter, up from 68% in Fall 2020, but down slightly from the pre-pandemic level of 87% in 2019. However, students from low-income households and students of color reported feeling less satisfied than their counterparts. Among students from households making $120,000 or more annually, 87% of students said they were satisfied with their college experience, compared to 82% of students from households making $60,000 or less per year.

Disaggregating by race and ethnicity, the survey found that white students (86%) were most likely to report having a satisfying college experience, followed by Latine students (84%), and Asian students (83%). Black students (79%) were the least likely to say they were having a satisfying college experience.

“Sense of belonging was highly correlated with overall levels of satisfaction,” the survey says. Just over one third (35%) of white students named “community/sense of belonging” as a source of satisfaction, followed by 30% of Asian students, and 28% of both Black and Latine students. Students of color were also more likely to say advisors/mentors and student support services contributed to their feelings of satisfaction, which reflects the role those services play in addressing disparities in college satisfaction and belonging by race/ethnicity and income, the report says.  

Addressing students’ concerns

Historically marginalized students were more likely to report experiencing harassment based on their identities. An average of one in three students (31%) said they faced targeting, criticism, or exclusion based on their identity, but a larger share of nonbinary students (51%) reported experiencing harassment based on their gender, sexual orientation, and mental health. First-generation, low-income, female, and Black students were also more likely to say they had experienced harassment than their peers. 

For nearly two-thirds of respondents (61%), “support for mental health and well-being” was key to feeling safe on campus, and that support ranked as the number one factor among lower-income respondents. Prospective college students from historically underrepresented groups were also more likely to rank mental health support programs as having a larger role in their college decision than their counterparts.

The report notes that mental health and affordability concerns are major reasons why students may opt out of college. Providing historically marginalized students with additional mental health and other support services, such as academic advising and tutoring (the two services respondents said they most used) can ensure that they have the support they need to navigate experiences of bias, exclusion, and feelings of being academically unprepared for college.

“If students feel unwelcome, they may feel a low sense of belonging which may turn into dropping out, having low grades, and/or experiencing mental health concerns, to name a few,” Nidia Ruedas-Gracia, Ph.D., assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said in an email to Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “It is thus imperative that institutions create a welcoming environment for all aspects of their students’ identities to maximize success.”

Topics in this story
, ,

Next Up

A national model to boost degree completion?

New Colorado legislation that strengthens the state’s credit transfer policies and makes them more transparent could become “a commonly replicated model” for states across the country, says Inside Higher Ed.