A Longitudinal Study of the Relations Between Students’ Socioeconomic Status, Social Integration at University, and Mental Health
Lead University: University of Newcastle
Lead Researcher: Mark Rubin
Research Team: Mark Rubin and Ross Wilkinson
Year Funded: 2014
Funding Received: $67,327
This project investigated the relationships between university students’ socioeconomic status, their social integration at university, and their mental health/wellbeing. Data collected through two online surveys informed policies and approaches to promote the social inclusion of low SES students and students with mental health problems and to reduce mental health problems among university students, increase their satisfaction at university, and reduce their attrition rates.
- The project aimed to provide a better understanding of the empirical links between university students’ socioeconomic status (SES), their social integration at university, and their mental health and wellbeing.
- The project team had two additional objectives:
- Inform policies and approaches that promote the social inclusion of two key minority groups: low SES students; and students with mental health problems.
- Inform policies and approaches that reduce mental health problems among university students, increase their satisfaction at university, and reduce their attrition rates.
- The project team developed an online survey to test these relationships and collected data from 749 students in Wave 1 and from a further 314 students in Wave 2.
- Once the data had been analysed it was presented at three conferences: the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference 2015 in Fremantle, Western Australia; the 2015 14th Australian Psychological Society Psychology of Relationships Interest Group (APS-PORIG) National Conference in Melbourne; and the 2016 Society of Australasian Social Psychologists Conference in Brisbane.
- The research showed—consistent with previous work—that students’ subjective social class (i.e. their own appraisal of their social status in society) was negatively related to their levels of depression and positively related to their satisfaction with life.
- These relationships were mediated by social contact at university. The report concluded that subjective social class predicted the amount of social contact that students had with other students at university which, in turn, predicted their levels of depression and satisfaction with life. These relationships were tested longitudinally, inferring social contact is the mechanism through which social class and mental health are linked:
- Social class determines the level of social contact that students have at university.
- Social contact, or lack of it, determines the level of mental health that students experience.
- Since completing this project, the project team have:
- published the research results in the following peer-reviewed journal article: Rubin, M., Evans, O., & Wilkinson, R. B. (2016). A longitudinal study of the relations between university students’ subjective social status, social contact with university friends, and mental health and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 35, 722-737. doi: 1521/jscp.2016.35.9.722
- published the following blog post about the research: Rubin, M. (10/11/2016). Lower social status causes less social contact and more depression in uni students. Mark Rubin’s Social Psychology Blog. Retrieved from http://markrubinsocialpsychologyresearch.blogspot.com.au/2016/11/lower-social-status-causes-less-social.html
- published a deidentified longitudinal data set
- informed the following stakeholders about the potential implications of the research: the Australian Government Department of Education and Training; the Australian Council for Educational Research; the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education; Universities Australia; the Go8 Social Inclusion Strategy Group; Innovative Research Universities; and the Australian Technology Network of Universities
- added a third wave to the original study, collecting data from a total of 152 students across all three waves. The findings from this third wave replicated and extended the findings of the original two-wave design, providing further evidence for the role of social integration in the relationship between social class and mental health. Findings from this part of the study have been presented at the 2017 Society of Australasian Social Psychologists Conference in Melbourne.
- The results may lead to implementable outcomes, for example developing targeted programs to increase the social contact that low SES students have at university which may help to buffer the effects of SES on mental health. In particular, the researchers are currently developing a social media-based social integration intervention to trial with American college students.
- Universities may pay greater attention to integrating low SES students into social life in order to protect them from poor mental health. Potential integration strategies included subsidising financial costs, including:
- travel to campuses
- on-campus and close-to-campus accommodation
- campus childcare
- university-based social events.
- The original project has now been completed. However, it has provided the foundation for a number of follow-up studies on the role of social integration in the relationship between social class and mental health.
- A key recommendation of the research is that improving the social integration of low SES students at university may be an important way of improving the mental health and wellbeing of these students.
- Additional research in this area may lead to further recommendations of national application in future.
Summary prepared by the NCSEHE.