All students need hope at different levels to graduate, especially those who need mental health support. Many students are still acclimating to life after two years of COVID-related disruptions, in addition to the usual anxiety that accompanies the start of a new phase in life. A new and unfamiliar environment, increased pressure from academics, new social dynamics, financial stressors, and other challenges can be overwhelming.
I thought more of our post-secondary students as we approach World Mental Health Awareness Day. It’s easy to sink into despair when you’re overwhelmed and separated from the support you’ve relied on all your life.
Madeline Smith, Ph.D., Director of Higher Education at the Hunt Institute, and I had the opportunity to discuss how data and analytics can help inspire hope through better policy of education.
The Challenges of Mental Health Support in Higher Education
Josh Morgan, Doctor of Psychology: A new study from Gallup and Lumina Foundation found that three-quarters of students in bachelor’s degree programs and two-thirds of adults seeking an associate’s degree have considered taking a break from college due to emotional stress. Mental health was cited twice as often as other common reasons, including the pandemic, costs associated with higher education and course difficulty. It’s important to remember that most mental illnesses start before the traditional college age, adding to the need for good mental health support.
College enrollment has been slowly declining over the past decade, and the pandemic has only worsened the decline in recent years. We have a lot to learn about the devastation the pandemic has taken on many current college students and college students, not to mention the ongoing effects on mental health. What challenges have you noticed?
Madeline Smith, Ph.D.: We closely monitor mental health in Institutions of Higher Education (IHE). Unfortunately, we see consistent trends with our previous article and a study from Boston University that “finds that the prevalence of depression and anxiety in young people continues to rise.” As a result, many IHEs and higher education systems have used federal emergency aid to expand existing mental health support. Now that federal emergency assistance expires, IHEs will rely heavily on state investments to ensure students can continue to access mental health resources.
While many IHEs are improving access to mental health support, others are still struggling to meet the demanding needs of students, especially as federal emergency funding runs out. National organizations, rather than specific IHEs, conduct most studies and surveys. Without solid state-level and even institution-specific data, policymakers and administrators are unaware of the extent of the need. Therefore, they cannot make data-based policy decisions to help support IHEs.
How analytics can help
JM: I like what you say about the importance of data-driven policy. This is useful for long-term systems planning and day-to-day quality improvement and interventions. As parents, educators and community members, we want to provide support and meet the needs of those struggling now. But policy steps can also be taken to create a solid foundation for measuring and monitoring the social and emotional well-being of our students.
The analysis often dictates the strategic decisions of an IHE in general. We have partnered with IHEs to apply analytics to data to improve enrollment, attrition and retention with great success. The same principles can be used to monitor student well-being and make strategic decisions to improve student resources. A great example is our work with Oklahoma State University. They started to focus on operations and retention, then expanded to engagement and even proactively identifying dropout risks and mental health needs.
How can we use this data and analysis to inform policy so that there is sustainable funding to provide needed mental health resources and create a foundation for IHEs to consistently collect and report relevant data to further research and policy?
MRS: The connection to enrollment and retention is that we know that students who experience mental health crises and who do not have access to supports are more likely to quit or drop out of post-secondary education. An important action for policymakers would be to mandate a needs assessment in their state to improve mental health-related data collection in higher education. Additionally, we encourage IHEs to collaborate with existing community partners to maximize access to resources.
JM: Sharing data between IHEs and even within an IHE to break down silos can be influential in getting a complete view of student needs and successes. I shared this approach from a public sector and healthcare perspective, but the same principles apply to this conversation. Additionally, integrating existing data can eliminate the need to engage in new data collection, which can incur expense and administrative burdens. I would also suggest that the more IHEs can collaborate with outside agencies to gain a non-educational perspective, the better they can support their students. As you mentioned, needs assessments may not require new data, but accessing, integrating and using rich existing data.
Creating Hope for Student Mental Health
JM: What actions can advocates and education leaders take to move the needle to hope?
MRS: Setting societal and educational goals and allocating resources to achieve those goals can be powerful, as can continuing to assess the positive impacts of education. For example, 46 states currently have post-secondary success goals to improve workforce skills, demonstrating the need to ensure that barriers are removed and supports are provided to our enrolled students. This will help us meet current and future workforce needs as well as student development in higher education. As former North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt once said, “Education is the foundation of everything we do in life. It shapes who we are and what we aspire to be.
JM: This is a wonderful quote that reminds us that education is not just about getting jobs or better salaries. It is fundamentally about our development, including how to become better citizens, partners and stewards of the world. This is where a more holistic perspective on education data and impacts can help.
Helping to assess and identify student needs through analytics, and even helping connect them to appropriate resources, is a powerful way to use technology to improve support. Once that happens, the data to monitor funding and analyze program effectiveness will help us inform the policies needed to provide ongoing mental health resources, improve student outcomes, and benefit long-term the individual, the community and the economy.
MRS: Thank you very much for inviting us to this important conversation. As you mentioned, leveraging technology to ensure students have access to institutional support – from school counseling to mental health services – can make a significant difference in their academic 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 supports student success.
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