A recent Student Voice (conducted by Inside Higher Education) survey of 2,000 students asked where they seek help and on what issues. The impact of the pandemic has obviously changed much about how communication occurs and what kinds of problems are paramount to students. The survey results provide a map of areas for higher education leaders to consider.
The biggest problems for students are related to financial pressures of enrollment, followed by mental health and courseload pressures. Unfortunately, the survey found that only 21% of students had raised concerns and 50% believed that there would be no point - meaning that they believed their concerns were either only slightly or not at all likely to be addressed. Peers were most often noted as a source of help (73%), professors were second (32%), and student affairs staff and other officials falling significantly lower. There are a number of things that can be done formally to encourage students to seek assistance when needed but at the core of most of those is one thing - listening regularly and learning directly from students.
Counseling centers, provided specifically to address student mental health concerns, are under-utilized as a place for students to turn. Taking actions to raise awareness, engage with broader numbers of students beyond just the help seekers, and cultivating peer networks are among the twelve ideas recommended by research and surveying best practices on campus.
A study of faculty views revealed growing awareness of student mental health needs. In addition, some faculty expressed willingness to be more involved and welcomed training to help them be effective. However, some faculty voiced concern about taking on any kind of role, even as gatekeepers, in the face of what they view as always being required to do more.
For campus leaders who want to encourage more open expression, two easy steps are 1) publicly let students know you hear their concerns, and 2) walk around campus more, show up where students are so casual interaction can lead to understanding students' views. It's important to recognize that "walking around" in virtual and social media spaces will have to suffice or be a complement to actual walking around until COVID-19 is more under control. A Vice Provost for Student Success recommended encouraging faculty and avoiding titles would improve student communication.
A student at High Point in North Carolina urged campuses to reach out to students more actively, concluding that one of the most important things is to "remind your students that is is OK and that mental health is not an illness." The challenge is that students are, and have been, ambivalent about their experience both during campus lock-down and upon returning to in-person instruction. Concerns are evident in everything from campus mitigation efforts to the role of online learning as a substitute or enhancement. One of the greatest areas of dissatisfaction for students is not being able to interact with peers.
Other research conducted by the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University confirmed the overall decline in trust for their institutions among all students. Alarmingly, the analyses documented that Black students trusted their universities even less. Shannon Calderone, professor of educational leadership at Washington State, indicated that the lack of confidence among Black students "speaks to the alienation and lack of sense of belonging" that they encounter. Campus leaders, informed by their communications team, can and should strive to overcome the distrust that may be present among marginalized students. Doing so requires acknowledging the privilege and power that leaders have (especially if they are white and male), remaining humble in their rhetoric, and including diverse voices.
Research conducted by Heterodox Academy identified considerable reluctance among students to discuss controversial topics such as race. Students' reticence is most pronounced among students who identify as more politically conservative, with the greatest contributor being how other students will judge them. The campus environment teaches students how to function in a democratic and open society. Therefore, campus leaders should do all they can to foster a sense that students can, and should, voice their opinions. Recommendations emerging from the Student Voice research include: modeling respectful conversations, integrating real-world issues into coursework, promoting inclusion through student organizations, fostering intentional student engagement, aligning titles with what staff actually do, providing a central place for assisting students, and providing policies and places to support free speech. The Key podcast summarizes the purpose of Student Voice, its findings, and addresses how institutions can respond.
Creating an open environment then becomes a shared concern across all campus stakeholders - peers, professors, counselors/advisors, and student affairs educators. It doesn't matter who students go to first, and faculty are the most readily available, but the concerns that students have must go somewhere and should be considered carefully during and after the pandemic.