Exploring Factors Affecting College Students’ Quality of Life: Insights from UC Campuses and US Universities

DataRes at UCLA
11 min readAug 14, 2023

Authors: Brandon Day (project lead), Katrina Iguban, Maha Al-Swaidi, Tony Jeon, Morgan Chan, David Oplatka

Introduction

This article aims to explore aspects that may influence college students’ quality of life across three University of California campuses (UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego) and college campuses across the United States. The data set we used for the UC campuses is the University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES) Data Tables (2022). For the larger data set across U.S. universities, we utilized the Healthy Minds Study (2021–2022).

Objective: Analyze quality of life and wellness program data among different colleges and universities to identify the factors that contribute to a high quality of life for college students.

Participation in Activities and its Relationship to Sense of Belonging — University of California

To explore whether participation in activities is associated with a higher sense of belonging at a university, we first looked at the data across the three UC campuses we are analyzing (UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego). The levels of belonging were categorized by six different responses to the statement, “I feel that I belong at this university”: (1) strongly disagree, (2) disagree, (3) somewhat disagree, (4) somewhat agree, (5) agree, and (6) strongly agree.

We are able to see UCLA has a slight edge over other UC’s with a higher proportion for “agree” at 0.38 and a higher proportion for “strongly agree” at 0.20. Although UCLA has the lowest proportion for “slightly agree” at 0.26, the proportion is spread out among the positive side of the Likert scale rather than the negative side.

Now that we have delved into the sense of belonging among UC students, let’s delve further into their involvement in student organizations. Examining student involvement is crucial as it is intimately connected to their social groups and the ways in which these groups influence their sense of belonging.

We can see UCLA has a higher proportion of students involved in a student organization(s) at 73% compared to UC Berkeley at 67% and UC San Diego at 58%. Therefore, these visualizations show us how UCLA has a slight advantage in positive responses for sense of belongingness and has higher student organization participation.

It is important to note that this is merely an observation. In order to gain further insight for this relationship, let’s look at how participation in activities relates to a sense of belonging across a larger data set of the U.S. Universities.

Participation in Activities and its Relationship to Sense of Belonging — U.S. Universities

To explore whether participation in activities is associated with a higher sense of belonging at a university, we plotted the distributions of belonging across college students in the US based on activity participation. The levels of belonging were categorized by six different responses to the statement, “I see myself as a part of the campus community”: (1) strongly agree, (2) agree, (3) somewhat agree, (4) somewhat disagree, (5) disagree, and (6) strongly disagree. After quantifying our data based on the number corresponding to each response, the average belonging amongst students was 3.69 for those who participate in activities and 2.81 for those who do not. From there, we took our analysis one step further. Using a significance test, we found that there is convincing evidence to conclude that the difference between these groups is not due to chance. Since a lower number represents a higher sense of belonging, we can conclude that activity participation is correlated with a higher sense of belonging amongst college students in the US.

We continued our exploration by comparing the distribution of satisfaction amongst college students who participate in activities and those who do not. Similar to the belongingness data, the level of satisfaction was characterized by six levels: (1) very dissatisfied, (2) dissatisfied, (3) somewhat dissatisfied, (4) somewhat satisfied, (5) satisfied, and (6) very satisfied. As before, we quantified the data using the corresponding number to each of the six levels of satisfaction where a lower number represents a lower level of satisfaction. As the visualizations below depict, along with a miniscule disparity of 0.04 between the groups’ average satisfaction, there is a lack of evidence to conclude any difference in satisfaction between students who participate in activities and those who do not. However, while there might not be any evidence of a difference between the groups, the respective averages of 4.42 and 4.46 amongst students not participating in activities and those who are suggest an overall high level of satisfaction amongst college students across the US.

Are international students or US residents more likely to re-enroll in their institution?

In order to furtherly define the term “satisfaction,” we investigated if students felt eager to re-enroll at their given institution. To add another dimension to this investigation, we filtered our search by residency status, curious to see if US residents or international students were more likely to re-enroll at their UC campus. Continuing with the 3 UC institutions that we have been focusing on (UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UCLA), we compared data from a student survey to determine the proportion of international students and US residents that stated they “Strongly agree” that “Knowing what I know now, I would still choose to re-enroll at this campus.” We originally hypothesized that international students would be less eager to re-enroll as they may be prone to difficult challenges such as culture shock, language barriers, and homesickness. However, our data visualizations show that across these 3 UC campuses, there is no difference between international students and US residents. It is only at UCLA that US residents had a slightly higher proportion of students that stated they would eagerly re-enroll.

In order to further understand the role of residency, or international status, in whether students would re-enroll in their institution, we decided to compare these findings with that from a larger dataset across U.S. universities — the Healthy Minds Study (2021–2022). The Healthy Minds Survey asks “If I could make my choice over, I would still choose to enroll at my school.” with response options ranging from Strongly Agree (1) to Strongly Disagree (6). In comparing international students with US residents, we found a similar result in that average scores to this question were similar. International students reported an average score of 2.2, whereas US residents scored 2.16.

In comparing whether being at a public institution, such as the UC system, factored into these results, we also compared by international status and institution type. Here, we find that students scored similarly by institution and there were no significant differences by international status. US residents at private institutions scored 2.45, whereas international students at private institutions scored a 2.25. US residents at public institutions reported an average score of 1.91, and international students at public institutions scored 1.93. Thus, our earlier findings appear to be replicated in that student scores appear more similar by institution type–as opposed to international status.

How does institutional investment in mental health/wellness affect the outcomes of student well-being?

While many factors contribute to student satisfaction and wellbeing, how does institutional investment play a role in these outcomes? Extracting data on a smaller scale of three schools (UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego), the analysis provides insight on how these schools spend their finances as provided by The Budget Act of 2022 which allocates $20.3 million to mental health among the UCs (1).

Barplots show what proportions each school invested into mental health/wellness of total budget (top) and overall satisfaction responses from undergrads (bottom)

Comparing the proportions of each school’s budget into mental health and wellness programs over their total allocated budget in 2021–2022, UC San Diego invested the largest amount of the three, with a proportion of approximately 0.078%, followed by UCLA with a proportion of approximately 0.069%, and UC Berkeley with a proportion of approximately 0.064%. Using the student responses scaled from 0 (least true) to 5 (most true) to selected statements (“I feel that I belong at this university”, “I feel valued as an individual at this institution”, “Knowing what I know now, I would still choose to enroll as this university”, “Overall academic experience”, and “Overall social experience”) from the UC Undergraduate Experience Survey, 2022 (2) as a method to measure student satisfaction, the overall proportions of satisfaction with their university reveal that UCLA tends to have larger proportions of high student satisfaction than its counterparts and UC San Diego tends to have larger proportions of low student satisfaction in comparison. The results indicate that a higher investment in mental health does not necessarily mean that students will be more satisfied with their university. However, for all three universities, the total number of students who chose responses 3–5 is greater than three times the total number of students who chose responses 0–2, which shows that higher numbers of students are more satisfied than less satisfied in general.

Stress and its relationship to Academic Success — University of California

Over the past few decades, students’ mental health and stress levels have gained increasingly more attention. Parents are more concerned about their children’s well-being as they take on more difficult classes and try to balance their school and social lives. One question that intrigued us was whether there is a difference in students’ academic stress levels across schools of varying academic difficulty. To answer this question, we compared student survey data across four UC campuses: UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UCLA, and UC Merced. The question we analyzed was “In this academic year, how often” has feeling depressed, stressed, or upset “been [an obstacle] to your school work or academic success?” (University of California). UC Berkeley and UCLA are widely regarded as the top UC schools in terms of academic rigor, which aligns with the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, which has these two schools at the top of its list among the undergraduate schools in the UC system. UC San Diego falls in the middle of the rankings by U.S. News and UC Merced is listed as the lowest. We initially expected to see higher stress levels at the more competitive schools, but this did not turn out to be the case. As seen in the graphs below, the distribution of responses across the four UC campuses are about the same, with no clear differences.

One way we might interpret these results is despite the differences in academic rigor at these universities, the relative academic capabilities of the student enrolled at these universities matches the relative academic difficulty of these universities. Thus, we would expect that the relative stress levels at these universities would be about the same.

The other important factor related to students’ stress is the direct impact that it has on their academic performance. We used data from a study by The Healthy Minds Network about college students to answer this question. Students were asked, “In the past year, how has” anxiety and/or stress “affected your academic performance?” (Healthy Minds Network) with the ability to respond with the following options:

  1. I did not experience this (They had no stress/anxiety)
  2. I experienced this but it did not affect my academic performance
  3. I received a lower grade on one or more exams or projects
  4. I received a lower grade in one or more courses
  5. I received an incomplete or dropped one or more courses
  6. I had a significant disruption in research, practicum, thesis, or dissertation work
  7. Other

As shown in the above graph, over 95% of students in this survey experienced some level of anxiety or stress and about 65% of students say that these emotions led to a negative impact on their academic performance in some manner. This leads us to believe that there is an important relationship between students’ academic performance and their overall wellness.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we explored various aspects that influence college students’ quality of life across different campuses, focusing on the University of California (UC) campuses and universities across the United States. The analysis examined the relationship between participation in activities and the sense of belonging among UC students, as well as their satisfaction and intention to re-enroll. It also investigated the role of institutional investment in mental health and wellness programs and the impact of academic stress on students’ well-being.

The findings indicated that participation in activities is correlated with a higher sense of belonging among college students in the US. Additionally, while there was no significant difference in satisfaction between students who participate in activities and those who do not, the overall satisfaction levels were high among college students across the country.

Regarding the intention to re-enroll, the study found no difference between international students and US residents across the UC campuses. The analysis of a larger dataset from US universities replicated this result, indicating similar average scores for both groups. Institution type appeared to have a greater influence on re-enrollment intention than international status.

Examining institutional investment in mental health and wellness programs, it was observed that UC San Diego allocated the largest proportion of its budget to these programs among the three UC campuses analyzed. However, the results showed that higher investment in mental health does not necessarily lead to higher student satisfaction. Nevertheless, the majority of students expressed satisfaction with their universities.

We also explored the relationship between academic stress and university rankings. Contrary to expectations, there were no clear differences in students’ stress levels across UC campuses, regardless of their academic difficulty. The analysis further revealed that stress and anxiety had a significant negative impact on students’ academic performance, emphasizing the importance of addressing students’ well-being for their overall success.

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