Hot Topics in Higher Education

Hot Topics in Higher Education: Mental Well-Being, Affordability, and Transferable Skills

The pandemic had a major impact on higher education, but now that institutions are moving past the disruption and uncertainty it is important to focus on other areas of concern for students, faculty, and administrators. Students' stress has risen (Soria & Horgos, 2021), as have their concerns over debt and affordability (Tretina, 2022), and worries about how well their skills and experiences have prepared them for the world of work (Wiley, 2022). This third installment of the NSSE 2022 Annual Results addresses several trending issues for colleges and universities.


We explore results from an experimental set on mental wellness, BCSSE data regarding perceptions of cost and affordability, and how data from the Development of Transferable Skills Topical Module can illustrate areas of skill development and their connections to student engagement.

Family and friends were the most supportive of students' mental health, while the institution overall, instructors, academic advisors, and other students provided some support.

Mental Health: A Concern Beyond COVID-19

As we explored in last year’s Annual Results, the COVID-19 pandemic response impacted students’ mental health and well-being in various ways. Given the steady increase in mental health concerns among college students, NSSE designed an experimental item set on mental wellness for the 2022 administration to ask how the COVID-19 response affected students’ academic and personal lives. Encouragingly, both first-year students and seniors felt that many areas had not been affected during COVID-19.

However, students claimed their finances were worse because of the pandemic compared to any other area (Table 1). Other areas that many first-year and senior students indicated got worse were academics and health, but there were more students overall indicating that COVID-19 policies had no effect on these areas. These results make sense given how COVID-19 policies restricted access to both on-campus job and academic opportunities, but they also point to areas where there may be a longer-lasting impact of the pandemic for college student experiences.

Table 1. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, how much better or worse have the following been for you?
Area First-year, Worse
First-year, No effect
First-year, Better
Senior, Worse
Senior, No effect
Senior, Better
Academics 36 41 23 37 39 24
Employment while in school 25 55 20 34 46 21
Your future opportunities (employment, further education, etc.) 21 55 24 24 48 29
Family relationships 20 49 32 21 50 29
Finances 45 39 16 47 35 18
Health 34 49 16 38 46 15
Relationships with peers 31 47 22 33 48 18
Intimate relationships 22 55 23 24 54 23

Percentages for "Worse" are the sum of "Worse" and "Much worse," and percentages for "Better" are the sum of "Better" and "Much better."

Some Students Experience Negative Behavior

In addition to areas impacted by COVID-19, about 1 in 12 first-year students and 1 in 9 senior students experienced offensive behavior, discrimination, exclusion, or harassment at their institution. Of these respective groups, racial or ethnic identity (35%) and political views (27%) were the top identities by which first-year students experienced mistreatment and racial or ethnic identity (38%), political views (27%), and gender identity (26%) were the top identities by which seniors experienced mistreatment. These negative experiences on college campuses remain troubling issues, especially given the ways race, gender, and politics are debated in society. Institutions should strive for all students to have college experiences free from discrimination and harassment, and educators need to keep such issues at the top of their agendas to promote positive learning environments (Ogunyemi et al., 2020).

A Variety of Support Sources

Students were also asked about the support they received from different groups of people regarding their mental health and wellness. For both first-year students and seniors, family and friends were the most supportive of their mental health, while the institution overall, instructors, academic advisors, and other students provided some support.

Figure 1. Sources of Support for Students' Mental Health

About half of students selected ‘not applicable’ for counseling services and student services staff (career services, student activities, housing, etc.) in relation to how much they supported their mental health and wellness. This pattern was consistent for both first year students and seniors; in fact, first-years and seniors diverged little with regard to their sources of support. This might worry some, particularly counseling services, because it may be the case that students underutilize services specifically provided to support their mental health.  

It may also suggest a lack of services provided, a lack of awareness of services or limited availability of counseling support staff to service the number of students who need assistance, especially post-pandemic as more students return to campus for in-person learning. In both scenarios, institutions must find ways to structure counseling and other support services to be accessible and useful in supporting students’ mental health.

Note: The items on mental wellness received responses from 6,132 first-year students and 7,911 seniors from 30 bachelor’s degree-granting colleges and universities in the US in 2022. Percentages in Figure 1 represent the sum of "Very much" and "Quite a bit." 

Students were asked, “Have you experienced offensive behavior, discrimination, exclusion, or harassment at your institution?” and those who responded either “Yes, and it interfered with my ability to succeed as a student” or “Yes, but it did not interfere with my ability to succeed as a student” were counted in the statistics cited above.

Mental Health & Well-Being Topical Module

Mental health and wellness continues to be a necessary area of study in relation to college student development and success. To meet this need, NSSE developed a new module for 2023: Mental Health & Well-Being. The goal of this module is to help institutions understand students’ emotional, psychological, and social wellness. Some of the items, such as those discussed above, were adapted from the experimental items on mental wellness from 2022. However, the entire set departs from focusing on the pandemic to a more generalized understanding mental health and well-being for students into the future.

Stephen F. Austin State University

Unpacking Student Expectations of Affordability

Scholars have documented the impact of the rising cost of higher education in the United States. The combination of high costs, associated economic stress, and shifting perspectives about college value contribute to student's decisions to enroll and remain in college. Many factors predict student retention, including financial stress (Reschly & Christenson, 2022). Though many students and their families experience financial stress, economic opportunities are not equally available across all sectors of society. For example, additional stress factors such as access to healthcare and to high quality public schools are often more keenly felt among some racially minoritized identities.

Given this concern, we dig deeper into the data from entering first-year students who expected a high degree difficulty paying for college. Supporting these students is critical for their academic success, but not all share the same backgrounds, experiences, and resources (Mora, 2022). Understanding who may perceive financial difficulty can help institutions reach out with appropriate supports.

Share of Entering Students Expecting High Difficulty Paying for College
Race/Ethnicity High Difficulty (%)
American Indian or Alaska Native 35
Asian 29
Black or African American 36
Hispanic or Latino 37
Middle Eastern or North African 27
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander 39
White 30

Differences in Expected Financial Difficulty by Racial Identity

Overall, most entering students express a low (27%) or moderate (41%) amount of difficulty paying for college expenses. However nearly 1 in 3 students (32%) are starting out their college experiences expecting a high amount of difficulty paying for college expenses. Given the potentially deleterious effects of this added stress, it is critical that institutions reach out to these students with effective support. However, institutions need to recognize that financial stress does not look the same across all students and that a more nuanced understanding of these students is needed, especially by racial identity.

The proportion of students who expected high difficulty paying for college expenses ranged from 29% among Asian students to 39% among Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students (Table 2). This 10% range highlights that differences that exist across racial identities, with some minoritized groups showing higher percentages.

Table 3. Share of Students Expecting High Difficulty Paying for College: Parental Education and Parents as a Financial Source
Race/Ethnicity First-generation (%) Parents as a financial source (%)
American Indian or Alaska Native 59 61
Asian 42 82
Black or African American 60 71
Hispanic or Latino 75 65
Middle Eastern or North African 41 71
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander 40 78
White 44 69

First-Generation Status Also Plays a Role in Perceived Financial Difficulty

Expected difficulty paying for college can also be analyzed by the education levels of the students’ parents, who often provide financial support (Table 3). Proportionally, about 3 in 4 Hispanic or Latino students who expect high difficulty affording college are also first-generation (no parent or guardian has a bachelor’s degree. See note below), and nearly two-thirds of these Hispanic or Latino students rely on their parents for financial support. In contrast, 42% of Asian students who expected high difficulty are first-generation, and almost all rely on their parents as a financial source. These results highlight the intersection of first-generation status and minoritized groups for students with potential financial stress.

Students May Have Unrealistic Expectations About Working

Not surprisingly, many entering students worked while in high school and expect to work during their first year of college. Entering students worked on average 8 to 14 hours per week during high school and expected to work 11 to 14 hours per week during their first year in college.

Though there was not much variation in expected work hours across racial identities, working 11 or more hours per week while enrolled as a full-time student added considerable stress, especially as students adjust to a college schedule and new academic demands. Yet, about half of these students did not expect a high degree of difficulty managing their time during their first year of college. This discrepancy could reveal an unrealistic expectation students have regarding time management and the added stress of working while being a full-time student. It may also explain why more than a third of these students indicated that it was not very important that the institution helped them to manage “non-academic responsibilities (work, family, etc.).” Recognizing the combination of factors with the group of students who may experience academic stress can help institutions to better target the appropriate resources and assistance, and train advisors and other student support staff to help students manage their time and expectations.

Note: BCSSE data are from more than 49,000 entering first-year students at 102 baccalaureate-level institutions across the United States prior to or at the very beginning of their first semester (Fall 2022). The racial identities of these students were American Indian 2%, Asian 11%, Black or African American 14%, Hispanic or Latino 19%, Middle Eastern or North African 1%, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander 1%, and White 61% (sums exceed 100% because respondents could choose more than one).

First generation status was calculated by recoding responses to the question, “Regarding your parent(s), guardian(s), or those who raised you, what is their highest level of education completed by either of them?” Responses indicating that no “parent(s), guardian(s), or those who raised you” has completed a bachelor's degree or higher was recoded as a first-generation college student.

Expected difficulty was asked “During the coming school year, how difficult do you expect the following to be?” with “Paying college or university expenses” as one of six items. Response categories for the expected difficulty questions range from 1 through 6, where 1=Not at all difficult and 6=Very difficult. Responses 1 and 2 were recoded as “Low”, 3 and 4 were recoded as “Medium”, and 5 and 6 were recoded as “High.”

Measuring Types of Transferable Skills as a Return on Investment

With increasing attention on student employability outcomes measured in skill development, universities have begun to focus on how their curriculum provides students with transferable skills (Gray, 2022). Recently, NSSE updated the Development of Transferable Skills Topical Module to address some of these rising areas of interest. Data analysis showed that these items, which ask students about their experiences with developing skillsets, can be subdivided into three categories: Speaking & Complex Discussions, Creativity & Problem Solving, and Complex Writing (Figure 2). Given college and university concern over ensuring improvement of their students’ transferable skills, we wanted to delve a bit further into these results. How are the three categories of transferable skills related to other aspects of student engagement? Do these relate to institutional characteristics? Are certain majors more successful in integrating activities that promote these skills?

Figure 2. Three Scales Created from Transferable Skills Items

For both first-year students and seniors, all three transferable skills scales were positively correlated to all NSSE Engagement Indicators (termed EIs, which are comprised of groups of the core survey items and capture distinct aspects of student engagement), although the relationships were relatively stronger for first-year students. In terms of the various EIs, the highest correlations were between the transferable skills scales and the EIs of Higher-Order Learning and Reflective & Integrative Learning. This suggests that acquiring transferable skills is another aspect of engaging student experiences. Furthermore, all transferable skills scales were negatively correlated to institutional size, meaning that smaller institutions tended to generate greater transferable skills. This relationship was the strongest for Speaking & Complex Discussions.

Comparisons Across Majors Show Strengths and Weaknesses

Transferable skills also varied across major field for seniors (Figures 3.1-3.3). For example, those majoring in social science, communications, and social service professions scored highest on average on Speaking & Complex Discussions, compared with those in health professions and physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science who tended to be lower. For Creativity & Problem Solving we found that engineering majors had the highest levels, in comparison to health professions with the lowest. In contrast, for Complex Writing, the social science & social service professions were among the highest, while engineering and physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science were among the lowest.

Fig. 3.1. Speaking & Complex Discussions
Fig. 3.2. Creativity & Problem Solving
Fig. 3.3. Complex Writing

Suggestions for Practice

Some of these findings are expected and align with current practices and needs of their respective fields. For instance, writing may be less of a focus in STEM fields, while those majoring in communications may have heightened expectations for verbal discourse. Similarly, larger institutions will logistically need to offer large class sizes, which may inhibit the kinds of activities and assignments that instructors can include in their courses. However, institutions may still be able help their students develop these highly desired skills in other ways. They might explore approaches to incorporate these skills into other department and campus programming and activities, such as major-associated and pre-professional clubs, residence life, clubs and organizations, or work-study positions. For example, the pre-med club or an affinity group organization might offer a “Creativity Night” where students learn different problem-solving techniques, or a residence hall might host discussions of current news or pop culture events with student panelists sharing their views. Incorporating transferable skills into other student experiences can move beyond the classroom for a more holistic approach, and gaining these skills that are valued by employers will provide students a better return-on-investment for their degree.

Note: The sample included 4,893 first-year and 5,944 senior students enrolled at 33 institutions that administered the Development of Transferable Skills Topical Module in 2022.One-way ANOVAs were used to determine statistically significant differences by major. Boxplots display the 25th, 50th (median), and 75th percentile values, whiskers span 1.5 * IQR, and outlying points are plotted individually.

FSSE: Emphasis on Transferable Skills Congruent with Other Best Practices

Faculty can have a major influence on the development of transferable skills, not only in the classroom but also through their roles in academic advising, supervising students in labs or other High-Impact Practices, and organizing co-curricular activities or campus events. The Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE) offers a Topical Module with parallel items, focusing on transferable skills from faculty perceptions of how often they encourage students to engage in the various skillset-building activities.

Corresponding with those from the NSSE module items, three scales can also be derived from the FSSE module items. These scales were nearly all positively related to the FSSE Engagement scales, similar to the correlations we find for NSSE data (Table 4). It is also worth noting that there was a strong relationship between all three of the transferable skills scales and a faculty emphasis on student-faculty interaction, as well as how faculty structure their courses to meet their course goals of student development and growth. Interestingly, there was a negative correlation (albeit small in magnitude) between Speaking & Complex Discussions and Quantitative Reasoning, perhaps reflective of the tension that some faculty feel between the need to focus on either mathematical or verbal skills, with limited classroom time to cover as many topics as they might like.

Table 4. Correlations Between FSSE Scales and Transferable Skills
Scale Speaking & Complex Discussions Creativity & Problem Solving Complex Writing
Higher-Order Learning +++ +++ +
Reflective & Integrative Learning +++ +++ +
Quantitative Reasoning - + ++
Learning Strategies + + +
Collaborative Learning + ++ ++
Discussions with Diverse Others ++ ++ +
Student-Faculty Interaction +++ +++ +++
Effective Teaching Practices + + +
Course Goals +++ +++ +++

Note: All significant at .01 level. Data are from more than 8,000 faculty members at 23 colleges and universities that administered the Transferable Skills, Career, and Workforce Development FSSE Topical Module in 2022. Key: + r > .2, ++ r > .3, +++ r > .4, - r < .2


Gray, K. (2022, November 15). As their focus on GPA fades, employers seek key skills on college grads’ résumés. NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition.

Mora, L. (2022, October 7). Hispanic enrollment reaches new high at four-year colleges in the U.S., but affordability remains an obstacle. Pew Research Center.

Ogunyemi, D., Clare, C., Astudillo, Y. M., Marseille, M., Manu, E., & Kim, S. (2020). Microaggressions in the learning environment: A systematic review. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 13(2), 97–119.

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