Should Colleges Measure Well-Being?

Colleges should track the well-being of students, including how specific groups are faring, according to panelists at the Association of American Colleges and Universities' annual meeting.

January 21, 2016

When students go through college, it isn’t enough for them to excel academically; they should flourish.

That idea was the focus of a session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The session was organized by Bringing Theory to Practice, an independent nonprofit group that works with AAC&U.

The session focused on the role of student well-being in higher education: What can colleges do to promote their students’ well-being? Why is student well-being an outcome that colleges should pay attention to in the first place?

At the beginning of the session, Ashley Finley, national evaluator at BTtoP, asked the audience whether their colleges use institutional learning outcomes. Many hands went up.

But when Finley asked how many use outcomes that “specifically, explicitly identify some aspect of student well-being,” no audience members raised their hands.

The fact that well-being is being discussed as a core outcome at all is important, said BTtoP co-founder Sally Pingree. Even the title of the session -- “Documenting Well-Being as a Core Outcome of Students’ Engaged Learning and Inquiry-Centered Work” -- was a victory of sorts.

“Ten or 15 years ago,” Pingree said, “this conversation wouldn’t have happened.”

But what does well-being mean, and how can colleges measure it? Robert Reason, professor and associate director of research and administration at Iowa State University, offered one solution: the campus climate survey.

Reason presented the results of the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory, a climate survey that measures students' perceptions of themselves and campus culture. It included data from 4,084 students at eight institutions. It broke down the results by race and measured mental health by dividing students into three categories: languishing, moderate and flourishing.

The ways the results vary by race are critical, Reason said. For instance, Asian-American and multiracial students received lower mental health scores than their white, Latino and African-American peers.

“Most of the time when we’re talking about the climate, we’re talking about the average,” Reason said. “But different groups of students report different outcomes.”

On many campuses, Reason said, the average student is white and middle-class -- and that’s why colleges need to break down their data, focus on specific populations and target their initiatives accordingly.

But how do universities design support systems for certain groups without making them feel marginalized? This question was the focus of a discussion in a question-and-answer session after the panel. One audience member, a professor at the College of William and Mary, said her colleagues were reluctant to disaggregate their data.

Another audience member, from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, offered a suggestion: don’t focus on the person or group; instead, focus on the shortcomings of a flawed system.

Alisa Stanton, a panelist and health promotion specialist at Simon Fraser University, said her university is trying to include a focus on well-being in its core institutional policies -- and that includes looking at the needs of underserved students. Students from Asia, for instance, have a harder time making connections at SFU than do other students. Soon, the university will hold focus groups with students in underserved populations.

SFU identified 10 conditions for well-being, and Stanton and her colleagues are trying to integrate well-being measures into academic settings. They’ve also created a casebook to highlight examples, like mentorship programs and learning communities.

“We think about how everything we do on campus can be embedded with a well-being lens,” she said.


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