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Report: Minority First-Year Students Less Likely to be Satisfied with College Experience

In their first year on campus, students of color and students from lower income households are less likely to be satisfied with their college experience. And a third feel as though they’ve been discriminated against because of their identities, according to a new EAB report.

Michael KoppenhefferMichael Koppenheffer

The report draws on responses to EAB’s 2024 First-Year Experience Survey, which asked almost 13,000 2023 high school graduates a series of questions related to overall college student perspectives, experiences, and satisfaction.

Despite college satisfaction among students now recovering to pre-pandemic rates – 84% expressed satisfaction in 2024 compared to 68% in 2020 – students of various demographics reported differing levels of satisfaction, according to the report.

Students who identified as white were most likely to express satisfaction with their college experience at 86%, the 2024 survey revealed. Hispanic and Latine students (84%) and Asian students (83%) were close behind, but a noticeable decrease was observed for Black students (79%).

College satisfaction also only decreased as household income did. Students coming from households making more than $120,000 annually were more likely to be satisfied with their college experience (87%) than those from households making $60,000 to $120,000 (85%) and households with incomes of less than $60,000 (82%).

Approximately one in three of the surveyed college first-years reported feeling targeted, criticized, or excluded due to their identity, with some specific identities being subject to these kinds of negative experiences more often than others.

A college student’s first year on campus can be pivotal and transformative, said Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, director of Virginia Union University’s Center for the Study of HBCUs and principal investigator of the school’s Belonging Lab.

That first year is when students start to build connections and question whether they’ll make friends, enjoy being on campus, and be perceived differently or as part of the community, Strayhorn said.

“It can be detrimental for them to then have moments of feeling targeted, criticized, and excluded,” he told Diverse. “One instance of alienation, one instance of feeling like you do not belong can persist in terms of its impact on your engagement, your involvement, your attendance in course, and your academic self-confidence for a semester or more.”

According to EAB, targeting based on race or ethnicity was most common, with more than 13% of students citing it.

Bias based on religion or political identity followed behind with 10% of surveyed students reporting having seen it occur on campus. To note, bias based on the former seems to be on the rise, as students were 19% more likely to see religious affiliation-based bias this year than in 2022.

Non-binary students in particular faced social struggles, survey results showed. A stark 51% of non-binary students surveyed expressed feeling targeted, criticized, or excluded, mainly citing discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and mental health, according to the report.

Mental health support remains a core concern for many students. Sixty-one percent of the students surveyed cited “support for mental health and well-being” as a factor that contributes to what constitutes a “safe” campus environment, alongside matters of sexual assault, property crime, and helpful campus police.

Some student demographics viewed the availability of mental health services as something that may affect their choice of college entirely. Transgender, non-binary, and female students viewed such services as more important than male students did. And Black, Native American, and Hispanic students did the same, stressing the importance of mental health supports to their college choice more so than their white and Asian counterparts.

More than a fifth of students not attending college being “not mentally ready for college” as a reason for opting out, according to the report. This marks a decrease from 30% in 2022 by a few percentage points. Nonetheless, mental health remains a prominent reason for opting out among students.

Another factor contributing to students’ choices to not enroll was cost. More than a quarter of respondents said they just “couldn’t afford college.” Affordable tuition and financial aid were cited by 46% of students as factors that affect their choice of college, second only to location.

These findings about affordability and mental health are consistent with ongoing trends about young people’s considerations regarding college, said report author Michael Koppenheffer, vice president of marketing and analytics for EAB’s Enroll360 division.

“These are themes that come up time and again when we talk to young people about college,” Koppenheffer said. “They are concerned about the cost of college. They're concerned about the return on investment in higher education. And they're concerned about their ability to be prepared for the challenges, both academic and non-academic, that they're going to confront there.

“We saw very strong findings suggesting that those issues were continuing to be primary in students' minds as they are evaluating college and as they're experiencing it now.”

When deciding on policies to signal support and respect for students, colleges must keep in mind that students are multifaceted and can identify with a number of different social identities, Dr. Nidia Ruedas-Gracia, assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said in an email.

“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,” Ruedas-Gracia wrote. “It is thus imperative that institutions create a welcoming environment for all aspects of their students' identities to maximize success.”

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