Annual Results 2023

Engagement Insights: Survey Findings on the Quality of Undergraduate Education

Welcome to the 2023 edition of Engagement InsightsNSSE’s annual dissemination of selected research findings and institutional stories that have broad relevance to the improvement of undergraduate education. 

This year’s Annual Results focuses on the theme: Engaging Students in Relationship-Rich Education. Below, you will find the main story, some related follow-up analyses, and an example of institutional use. We also plan to roll out new “Special Reports” that dive deeper into other content throughout the course of 2024, so stay tuned for more NSSE findings!

Another Layer of Complexity

To understand the experiences of a whole student, when possible, we need to consider student identity beyond a single demographic. This can be an incredibly daunting task! But taking even small steps to integrate other information about student experiences can help to form a clearer picture of complex situations. In 2023, 38,619 (22%) of the first-year and senior students in the U.S. who responded to NSSE have a disability or condition that impacts their learning, working, or living activities.

NSSE's Disability Question 

Do you have a disability or condition that impacts your learning, working, or living activities? 

  • Yes 
  • No 
  • I prefer not to respond 


If response is yes, respondents receive the following: 

Which of the following impacts your learning, working, or living activities? (Select all that apply.) 

Sensory disability 

  • Blind or low vision 
  • Deaf or hard of hearing 

Physical disability 

  • Mobility condition that affects walking 
  • Mobility condition that does not affect walking 
  • Speech or communication disorder 
  • Traumatic or acquired brain injury (TBI) 

Mental health or developmental disability 

  • Anxiety 
  • Attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder (ADD or ADHD) 
  • Autism spectrum 
  • Depression 
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 
  • Another mental health or developmental disability (schizophrenia, eating disorder, etc.)  

Another disability or condition 

  • Chronic medical condition (asthma, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, etc.) 
  • Learning disability 
  • Intellectual disability 
  • Disability or condition not listed 

The context of the disability or condition, however, can impact students in vastly diverse ways. Additionally, nearly three out of four (74%) of these students have multiple disabilities or conditions that affect their experiences, further complicating matters. Looking at students with disabilities in the aggregate will likely hide important differences in experience. Expansive disaggregation would be ideal, but looking within general subcategories, such as sensory or physical disabilities, can be a good start. 

Focusing on one of our relationship-building aspects of engagement, Sense of Belonging, students with sensory disabilities, physical disabilities, and disabilities or conditions such as chronic medical conditions or learning disabilities feel disproportionately greater sense of belonging (2 (8; 37,964) = 234.3, p < .001) but students with mental health or developmental disabilities or multiple disabilities or conditions across these broad categories feel disproportionately lower sense of belonging. These findings could signal that institutions are more equipped or motivated to create inclusive spaces for students with sensory or physical disabilities and chronic medical conditions. It could also indicate inclusion efforts focus on more obvious disabilities as opposed to disabilities that may be less apparent such as developmental disabilities and those related to mental health 

Figure 1. Sense of Belonging for Select Students by Racial/Ethnic Identification With and Without a Mental Health or Developmental Disability Go to an accessible version of figure 1 Sense of Belonging by Racial/Ethnic Indentification

We previously found that students who identified as Black + Latine, White + another, Indigenous + Latine + White, or Black + another feel disproportionately less belonging at their institution and that students with mental health or developmental disabilities feel similarly. Combining these aspects of identity, we see that students with these select racial/ethnic identifications and mental health or developmental disabilities feel even less belonging than their peers (Figure 1). 

These are certainly not the only ways to explore data through disaggregation or intersecting identity lenses, but they are a simple way to start. Understanding engagement experiences through identity can be complex and intimidating, but small steps are better than none. We can often learn more about unique student experiences when we question the norms of our data practices, whether that involves the ways we aggregate or disaggregate data or how we often ask questions of our data using one demographic at a time. 

Questions to Consider

Often the most compelling findings result in more questions. Here we offer a series of questions to consider with your own institutional data: 

  • How inclusive is the student demographic data you collect? 
  • Do findings on your campus mirror those found here? 
  • What other aspects of student identity can you use to add layers of complexity to your findings? 
  • Are counseling services and disability services prepared to support students with complex racial/ethnic identities? 
  • Are racial/ethnic cultural centers prepared to support students with mental health or other disability concerns? 
  • How can efforts to increase sense of belonging or other relationship-building engagement, such as those embedded in the outcomes we feature here, incorporate understandings of multiple aspects of student identity? ♦

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Some LGBTQ+ Students More Likely to Participate in Undergraduate Research

Participation with faculty in undergraduate research (UGR) is invaluable for academic development, fostering critical thinking, and providing mentorship opportunities. However, for LGBTQ+ students, these collaborations can be both empowering and challenging due to the social dynamics and inherent biases present in academic environments.  

For example, Woodford and Kulick (2015) observed that the perceptions and experiences of students identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender affected their academic and social integration within the campus. However, Kilgo et al(2019) found that among all high-impact practices, only undergraduate research positively predicted LGBTQ+ students’ academic development. They further concluded that it was students’ relationships with the instructors that mediated the difference.

A few years ago, NSSE found that—percentagewise—many more LGBTQ+ seniors (about a third) participated in UGR, compared to a quarter of their straight peers. Similarly, around a third of seniors who did not identify with the man/woman gender binary participated in UGR, compared to around a quarter of seniors identifying as men or women (Kinzie & BrckaLorenz, 2021). 

Now in 2023, with NSSE’s recently expanded and more inclusive gender identity and sexual orientation options, a detailed revisiting of these results is possible, and the same overall patternemerge. For example, a third of seniors who identified as genderqueer, non-binary, or gender nonconforming and trans/transgender” participated in UGR, compared to a quarter of those who identified as woman or man (Figure 2). Participation by sexual orientation reveals even larger gaps. Fully 37% of “queer” seniorparticipated in research with faculty, and “demisexual,” “bisexual,” and others were also substantially more likely to participate than their “straight or heterosexual” peers (23%) (Figure 3). 

Figure 2. Participation in Undergraduate Research by Gender Identity for Seniors Go to an accessible version of this figure (Undergrad Research by Gender Identity)

Note: N is the number of seniors within the category who responded to the undergraduate research question. Students could select more than one category.


Figure 3: Participation in Undergraduate Research by Sexual Orientation for Seniors Go to an accessible version of figure 3 regarding undergraduate research by sexual orientation.
Note: N is the number of seniors within the category who responded to the undergraduate research question. Students could select more than one category.

On the face of it, these results are encouraging for students who often find campus environments to be challenging (Woodford & Kulick, 2015). Viewed alongside the findings of Kilgo et al. (2019), they offer support to NSSE’s assertion that the quality of high-impact practices depends on how well they are designed and facilitated. Yet, questions remain as to the reasons for these positive results. Do LGBTQ+ students find more welcoming spaces with faculty? Are they shut out of opportunities in other areas, leading them to pursue majors that offer more research experiences? Are students who identify as genderqueer, trans, etc. more likely to be “research-oriented” with the inquisitiveness, scholarly approach, and inclination to study unanswered questions 

Despite these ongoing questions, engaging in UGR can nevertheless provide opportunities for empowermentadvocacy, and academic development through more sustained and engaging student-instructor relationships, whereas, according to Kilgo et al. (2019)other high-impact practices may not. For instance, supportive and inclusive mentors can serve as allies, creating a better climate for these students to express their identities and contribute meaningfully to research projects. More work should be done to explore how other high-impact practices are implemented and their potential to support LGBTQ+ populations. ♦

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Institution Story (CSULB): Using NSSE’s Expanded Student Identity Categories for More Tailored Results


Though college students' mental health and wellness has been a concern for many years, it has recently emerged as a widespread problem that can seriously impact academic success. To inform the enhancement of institutional support for student’s mental health, California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) is reviewing a range of data to gain a more nuanced sense of students’ access to campus resources and impressions of services. One of their data sources is NSSE’s Mental Health & Well-Being Topical Module. Gary Coyne, Associate Director for Assessment and Evaluation in Student Affairs, has been disaggregating the CSULB data by standard demographic items including gender, first-generation status, and major, and plans to use NSSE’s expanded student identity items to further explore their data through disaggregated ranking. Specifically, results regarding who students identify as most supportive of their mental health and well-being and their awareness of a range of sources of help on campus will be ranked within subgroups. Knowing more about sources of support by identity groups can lend insights into fostering more productive relationships and tailored support offerings. The use of NSSE’s more expansive student identity categories, coupled with analytic approaches that preserve small sub-groups, can help reveal salient variation among student populations and inform the development of customized support.  

Let us know how your institution plans to use the updated student identity items!

Email NSSE 

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Felton, P. & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. John Hopkins University Press.  

Harris, J. C., BrckaLorenz, A., & Nelson Laird, T. (2018). Engaging in the margins: Exploring differences in biracial students’ engagement by racial heritage. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 58(2), 137-154.  

Kilgo, C. A., Linley, J. L., Renn, K. A., & Woodford, M. R. (2019). High-impact for whom? The influence of environment and identity on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer college students' participation in high-impact practices. Journal of College Student Development, 60(4), 421-436.  

Kinzie, J., & BrckaLorenz, A. (2021). Expectations for and Quality Experiences in Undergraduate Research Over Time: Perspectives of Students and Faculty. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 21(1).  

Woodford, M. R., & Kulick, A. (2015). Academic and social integration on campus among sexual minority students: The impacts of psychological and experiential campus climate. American Journal of Community Psychology, 55, 13-24.  

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Banner Image: Saint Paul University

Background images: St. Johns' University New York, Southeast Missouri State University, Cedar Crest College