Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Disability

June 01

Student Health (part 1)

I have been perusing a quite astonishingly detailed survey that was recently released regarding student health.  Run by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, this multi-campus exercise has been run twice now in Canada – once in 2013 and once in 2016.  Today, I’m going to look at what the 2016 results say, which are interesting in and of themselves.  Tomorrow, I’m going to look at how the data has changed since 2013 and why I think some claims about worsening student health outcomes (particularly mental health) need to be viewed with some caution.  If I get really nerdy over the weekend, I might do some Canada-US comparisons, too.


The 2016 study was conducted at 41 public institutions across Canada.  Because it’s an American based survey, it keeps referring to all institutions as “colleges”, which is annoying.  27 of the institutions are described as “4-year” institutions (which I think we can safely say are universities), 4 are described as “2-year” institutions (community colleges) and 10 described as “other” (not sure what to make of this, but my guess would be community colleges/polytechnics that offer mostly three-year programs).  In total, 43,780 surveys were filled out (19% response rate), with a roughly 70-30 female/male split.  That’s pretty common for campus surveys, but there’s no indication that responses have been re-weighted to match actual gender splits, which is a little odd but whatever.


There’s a lot of data here, so I’m mostly going to let the graphs do the talking.  First, the frequency of students with various disabilities.  I was a little bit surprised that psychiatric conditions and chronic illnesses were as high as they were.

Figure 1: Prevalence of Disabilities

Figure 1 Prevalence of Disabilities

Next, issues of physical safety.  Just over 87% of respondents reported feeling safe on campus during the daytime; however, only 37% (61% of women, 27% of men, and right away you can see how the gender re-weighting issue matters) say that they feel safe on campus at night.  To be fair, this is not a specific worry about campuses: when asked about their feelings of personal safety in the surrounding community, the corresponding figures were 62% and 22%.  Students were also asked about their experiences with specific forms of violence over the past 12 months.  As one might imagine, most of the results were fairly highly gendered.


Figure 2: Experience of Specific Forms of Violence Over Past 12 Months, by Gender

Figure 2 Experience of Specific Forms of Violence

Next, alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.  This was an interesting question as the survey not only asked students about their own use of these substances, but also about their perception of other students’ use of them.  It turns out students vastly over-estimate the number of other students who engage with these substances.  For instance, only 11% of students smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days (plus another 4% using e-cigarettes and 3% using hookahs), but students believed that nearly 80% of students had smoked in the past month.


Figure 3: Real and Perceived Incidence of Smoking, Drinking and Marijuana Use over Past 30 Days

Figure 3 Real and Perceived Incidence of Smoking

Figure 4 shows the most common conditions for which students had been diagnosed with and/or received treatment for in the last twelve months.  Three of the top ten and two of the top three were mental health conditions.

Figure 4: Most Common Conditions Diagnosed/Treated in last 12 Months

Figure 4 Most Common Conditions Diagnosed

Students were also asked separately about the kinds of things that had negatively affected their academics over the previous year (defined as something which had resulted in a lower mark than they would have otherwise received).  Mental health complaints are very high on this list; much higher in fact than actual diagnoses of such conditions.  Also of note here: internet gaming was sixth among factors causing poorer marks; finances only barely snuck into the top 10 reasons, with 10.3% citing it (though elsewhere in the study over 40% said they had experienced stress or anxiety as a result of finances).

Figure 5: Most Common Conditions Cited as Having a Negative Impact on Academics

Figure 5 Most Common Conditions Cited as Having

A final, disturbing point here: 8.7% of respondents said they had intentionally self-harmed over the past twelve months, 13% had seriously contemplated suicide and 2.1% said they had actually attempted suicide.  Sobering stuff.

August 30

Know Your Incoming Students (Part 1)

As the school year starts, it’s always valuable to take a look at trends in incoming students.  The best tool we have for that in Canada for doing this is the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium’s triennial survey of first-year students (the most recent version is here.  It’s not the greatest of instruments: consortium membership changes from cycle to cycle, so the base population is neither equal to the national first-year population nor stable from cycle to cycle.  But since Statistics Canada is now declining to do any surveys at all of enrolled students, it’s all we’ve got, and by and large, participating institutions are reasonably representative of the country as a whole.  There’s also a problem with CUSC occasionally changing the wording of the questions, thus making time series somewhat difficult – but then again, this is an aggravating habit that Statscan has in spades.  So, with all those difficulties acknowledged, let’s begin.

Here’s my favourite chart, on the theme of visible minorities (a subject I tackled a few months ago):

Figure 1: Visible Minority Students as a Share of all First-year students, 2001-2016


Now part of the increase comes from the way this value is calculated.  The question used to simply be: “are you a visible minority?”’; it now asks directly about ethnicity and infers visible minority status on that basis (basically, if you do not declare yourself as white or aboriginal, you are considered “visible minority”).  So part of the increase may have to do with a change in the question phrasing.  But still, this is pretty impressive.  Even if you take out all the international students (not all of whom are visible minority), you’re talking 33% of all students (compared to just 22% of all Canadians 15-24%) being visible minority.  That would make Canada possibly the only country in the world where visible minorities have that kind of advantage.

Here’s another intriguing time series where the phrasing of the question makes an enormous difference: students with disabilities.

Figure 2: Percentage of Students Indicating they Have a Disability, 2001-2016


The jump in the last three years is definitely due to the way the question was posed.  In all previous years, the question was “do you have a disability”?  In 2016, the question specifically referenced nine different kinds of disability (including learning disability, which accounted for over half the responses). It then asked if the disability was serious enough to require the university to provide accommodation.  Only 32% of those listing disabilities – or 7% of all students – said yes, which brings us back down to the range of previous years.  Moral: how you ask a question matters a lot.

On to socio-economic background, which this survey measures via parents’ educational background.  This time series is a bit messed up because CUSC changed the wording of the question this year (formerly, the survey asked about each parent separately, now it just asks about “parents’” highest level).  But here goes:

Figure 3: Percentage of Students’ Parents Possessing a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher


It’s hard to know exactly what to make of these results.  Since children tend to hit university about 30 years after their parents do, this graph is to some extent just reflecting the expansion of access to university in the 70s and 80s.  But that’s not quite the whole story.  According to the census, in 2001, 17% of adults aged 45-64 possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher; in 2011 it was 21% (I know, I know, National Household Survey – but still).  So it appears as if more recent cohorts of first year students are slightly more likely to come from better-educated households than their predecessors, which is not a particularly good finding.

More tomorrow.