All students need varying degrees of hope to graduate, especially those who need mental health support. Many students are adjusting to life after two years of Covid disruption, beyond the usual stress that comes with a new phase of life. A new and unfamiliar environment, increased academic pressure, new social dynamics, financial worries and other challenges can be overwhelming.
As World Mental Health Awareness Day approaches, I think more about our post-secondary students. It’s easy to fall into despair when you’re exhausted and separated from the support you’ve depended on throughout your life.
I had the opportunity to speak with Madeleine Smith, PhD, Director of Higher Education at The Hunt Institute, and discuss how data and analytics can provide hope for improved education policy.
Challenges for mental health support in higher education
Josh Morgan, SID A new study by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation found that three-quarters of students in bachelor’s programs and two-thirds of adults seeking an associate degree have considered taking a break from college because of emotional stress. Mental health was cited twice as often as other common factors, including the epidemic, the costs associated with higher education and the difficulty of coursework. It’s important to remember that many mental illnesses begin well before the traditional college age, requiring good mental health support.
College enrollment has been steadily declining for decades, and the epidemic has exacerbated that decline in recent years. There is much to learn about the epidemic’s toll on college-bound and current college students, not to mention its lasting impact on mental health. What are some challenges you’ve noticed?
Madeleine Smith, Ph.D.: We have been closely monitoring mental health at institutions of higher education (IHEs). Unfortunately, we are seeing trends that are consistent with our previous article and a Boston University study that “shows prevalence of depression and anxiety among young adults.” As a result, many IHEs and systems of higher education have used federal emergency grants to augment existing mental health support. Now, as federal emergency aid expires, IHEs rely on state investment to ensure students continue to have access to mental health resources.
While many IHAs are improving access to mental health support, others are still struggling to meet the growing needs of students, especially as federal emergency funding expires. National organizations, rather than specific IHEs, conduct most research and studies. Without robust government-level and even institution-specific data, policymakers and managers are unaware of the full extent of the need. Therefore, they cannot make informed policy decisions to support IHEs.
How analytics help
JM: I like what you say about the importance of informed policy. This is useful for long-term systems planning and daily quality improvement and intervention. As parents, educators and community members we want to support and meet the needs of those who are currently challenged. But policy steps can be taken to create a solid foundation for measuring and monitoring the social and emotional well-being of our college students.
Analytics often drive IHE strategic decisions as a whole. We have partnered with IHAs to apply analytics to data to improve enrollment, attendance and retention with great success. The same principles can be used to monitor student safety and make strategic decisions to improve student resources. A good example is our work with Oklahoma State University. They began to focus on operations and retention, then moved on to engagement and even actively identifying dropout and mental health needs.
How can we use this data and analysis to inform policy for sustainable funding to provide needed mental health resources?
Mrs. Related to enrollment and retention is our finding that students who experience mental health crises and are unable to access support are more likely to drop out or drop out of postsecondary education. An important step for policymakers is to commission a needs assessment in their state to collect data related to mental health in higher education. Additionally, we are encouraging IHEs to collaborate with existing community partners to maximize access to resources.
JM: Sharing data across IHEs and even within IHEs can have an impact on breaking down silos by gaining visibility into student needs and achievements. I have shared this approach from the perspective of the public sector and healthcare, but the same principles apply to this discussion. Additionally, integrating existing data does not require engaging in new data collection, which leads to costs and administrative burdens. I also suggest that IHEs can better support their students by partnering with outside agencies to gain a non-academic perspective. As discussed, needs assessments may not require new data but the acquisition, integration, and use of rich existing data.
Creating hope for students’ mental health
JM: What steps can advocates and education leaders take to move the needle toward hope?
Mrs. Setting social and educational goals and allocating resources to achieve those goals can be powerful, as can continuing evaluation of the positive effects of education. For example, 46 states currently have postsecondary achievement goals that demonstrate the importance of improving workforce skills, ensuring we are removing barriers, and supporting our enrolled students. This will help us meet current and future workforce needs as well as student growth in higher education. As former North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt said, “Education is the foundation of everything we do in life. It shapes who we are and what we want to be.
J.M: That’s a great quote and helps us remember that education isn’t just about getting a job or getting a better salary. It is fundamentally about our growth, including how we can become better citizens, partners and stewards of the world. That’s where data visualization and learning effects can be useful.
Analytically assessing and identifying student needs, and even helping connect them to appropriate resources, is a powerful way to use technology to enhance support. Once that happens, data to track funding and analyze program effectiveness will help inform the policy necessary to provide ongoing mental health resources, improve student outcomes, and provide long-term benefits to individuals, communities, and the economy.
Mrs. Thank you very much for inviting us to this important discussion. As you mentioned, using technology to help students access institutional support — from academic advising to mental health services — can make a big difference in their educational trajectory. Our hope is that by using analytics to demonstrate the benefits of positive mental health policies, practices, and resources in IHEs, we can create a higher education system that promotes student success.