“Wellbeing” is perhaps one of the most ambiguous terms in higher education and is often the center of conversation when talking about holistic student success. In fact when polled, 68% of university and college presidents report it as a top concern for the academic years ahead. Wise to the lack of critical student data, higher education leaders are incorporating more methods to measure student voice and develop the two-way communication needed to inform truly effective policies and programming.
On December 8th, Mentor Collective hosted a roundtable convening executive-level leadership from the University of Texas at Arlington, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and Georgia Tech to engage in a much needed conversation with more than 80 of their peers surrounding student voice and wellbeing.
Here are some of the key takeaways and highlights of that discussion.
Understanding & Supporting the “Business of Being a Student”
Key to understanding student wellbeing is knowing both the academic and transactional touchpoints students encounter on campus. Dr. Samantha Raynor, Assistant Vice Provost for Strategic Student Success Initiatives at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (UNCG) says her Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management describes it as “extending the culture of care to the business of being a student.”
“That means transactional things, like when a student shows up in the cashier's office or at the registrar's office. Offices where you don't necessarily think about them as student success, but really do play a key role in the student experience at your institution. We're trying to push the envelope and extend that culture of care, that student-centered approach.”
Panelists Dr. Ashley Purgason, Assistant Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, and Dr. Bryan Samuel, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, from the University of Texas at Arlington echoed this sentiment in their keynote presentation, highlighting other areas where institutions can be student-ready.
- Providing emergency grants for food and housing insecurities, so students can focus on academics
- Raising faculty awareness of issues affecting student wellness, health, and financial challenge
- Making process improvements, such as decreasing advising wait times
- Looking at student transition points and degree progress to understand what support is needed at what stage of the student journey
Dr. Samuel further commented that the “business of being a university” has a lot at stake.
“In 2021, students are no longer interested in forming alter egos just so they can have a sense of belonging. They don't have to do that anymore. They can go to other institutions, so if you don't treat them well, if you don't engage them well, you're going to lose them. They're going to go to other places.”
Institutions Have a Role In Preventing Attrition & Imposter Syndrome
Historically underserved student populations have the most to gain from institutional support, but are often the least likely to seek it. Dr. Charmaine Troy, First-Generation Program and Operations Manager, First-Generation Student Programs at Georgia Tech recalled her experience supporting first-generation students and being a person of color in a graduate program, noting that imposter syndrome can derail academic progress with self-doubt.“First-generation students are reporting higher levels of depression, stress, and anxiety on average compared to non-first-generation students, so we have to ask questions about why are students seeking to self-conceal their mental health issues versus seeking-out assistance. We must prioritize first-generation students’ mental health concerns and invest in mental health needs by establishing first-generation student mental health research initiatives.”
Honoring and not "other-ing" and leading with empathy were central themes of the conversation when it came to supporting the many identities on a diverse campus. Dr. Samuel discussed the importance of acknowledging the systemic barriers within institutions that frequently contribute to attrition.
“We [University of Texas at Arlington] give people opportunities for research or study abroad based on grade point averages or money that you know people can afford to spend. If I'm a first-generation, Pell-eligible, low-income student, and I can’t come up with $5,000 and a passport to go study abroad and engage in some of these impact learning experiences, then we've got to understand that we have a role. We are systematically keeping students out or making them feel like they don't belong or capitalize on everything that the university has to offer.”
Adding Clarity to Aggregated Data Is Critical
How are institutions making change happen? Diving deeper into the aggregated data and providing venues where students can communicate with peers and senior administrators in approachable and constructive ways. University of Texas at Arlington has found great success with their DE&I student committees and their Pizza with the President events that allows student to ask administrators questions about tuition, process and policy.
Involving student voice is not merely a convenience, commented Dr. Samuel, but an integral part of universities remaining relevant in the long-term.
“We are student-driven by demand. They need to have a voice. They must have a voice. Students today are operating from the mantra that they don't want institutions to do anything without their input. Nothing about us without us, and you will hear that at almost any university.”
University of Texas at Arlington put policies affecting student success under review. Dr. Ashley Purgason describes looking intently at enrollment data and high DFW-ranked (drop, fail, withdraw) courses to understand areas needing improvement.
“Why are we teaching our less prepared students in exactly the same way and structure as we teach our highest achieving students? And we're hoping that they all pass. Hoping for the same outcome for all of them is an illogical approach. To really work on these things, our data operation has had to quickly become more savvy, and it's more important than ever.”
UNCG is leveraging Strayhorne’s measurement of sense of belonging to truly understand the experiences of the school’s large transfer student population (40%). Dr. Raynor shared that student surveys revealed many transfer students took pride in that aspect of their educational journey, but noted the future data needed to help move the needle on overall student success.
“When students are transferring, how are we applying their credits? How long is it taking students to graduate? We have a comprehensive articulation agreement in North Carolina for all community college transfer students, so theoretically they should have two years when they get to us, and that's not the case. How do we shorten that gap and then how are students disproportionately graduating based on race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.”
Structured Peer Mentorship Adds Support for Students & Capacity for Administrators
All panelists recognized that peer mentorship facilitates better awareness of campus services while breaking down wellbeing stigmas.
Further to having access to a peer support network is having the administrative support to address prevalent challenges and note trends that inform long-term strategy. Dr. Raynor is keenly aware of this, citing Mentor Collective’s Flags that assisted the university in aiming limited resources strategically.
“Mentor Collective is adding some capacity for us that we did not have. We could not administer this program on our own, so I'm so grateful that we have partnered with them to give this resource to our students. They are making connections with one another, and they are leveraging their mentor. It’s a very active program, so we're excited to see that.”
Student wellbeing is a larger conversation that continues well beyond this leadership event.
Contact Mentor Collective to understand the full implications of what today’s students are facing and learn how structured peer mentorship combats isolation and gives students an empathic support system.