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College campuses can support student health and wellness through acknowledging sexual assault and teaching prevention education.

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An estimated 26 percent of undergraduate women and 7 percent of undergraduate men experience sexual assault while at college, according to 2019 data from the Association of American Universities.

Higher education institutions can support students’ health, wellness and safety by providing education on sexual assault and hosting prevention initiatives.

What’s the need: Sexual assault can have long-term effects on students’ retention and success after college.

Students who experience sexual assault in college are more likely to have lower GPAs, stop out or have self-regulated learning problems as a result. One 2017 study found rape can cost a survivor $122,461 across their lifetime including medical costs, lost productivity and criminal justice activities, among other expenses.

Providing education: Some key topics higher education officials can address on their campuses include:

  • Consent training. Having conversations around informed consent can teach students what sexual violence is and how to support others. The University of Southern California (like many other institutions) requires undergraduate learners to complete an online education course. Denver University peer educators put on a Consent Fair in April 2023, using a Jenga game to provide questions and facts about sexual assault and consent to promote conversation between students.
  • Bystander prevention workshops. Another important training students can complete is bystander prevention training, which provides them with the tools and tips to engage if they see a peer in harm’s way. Bystander prevention can be especially beneficial for men who are often left out of sexual assault conversations.
  • Survivor support. Despite the prevalence of sexual violence during students’ college-going years, some may be unaware of the number of students who are impacted by sexual assault and the assistance they may need. Events designed to honor survivors, such as Denim Day or Take Back the Night, can help destigmatize conversations about sexual violence and encourage students to seek support.
  • Title IX rights. All students are protected from gender-based discrimination and sexual violence under Title IX, but how it looks in practice can be confusing for learners. Informational sessions on Title IX can help students understand their federal rights and assist those who may want additional institutional help.

Research for thought: In addition to education, there are also actionable changes college and university leaders can enact to address sexual assault. Based on recent studies and publications, here are four strategies and best practices for college leaders looking to create positive change:

  • Invest in peer support. A June 2023 survey from Vector Solutions found the overwhelming majority of students who had experienced unwanted sexual contact told friends or roommates and family before talking to a university employee or on-campus crisis center. Campus-wide student training on sexual assault and campus resources may help connect learners with more formal support.
  • Create culturally competent trainings. Recent research from Oregon State University shows students who belong to minoritized groups feel less confident, compared to their peers, that they would receive support from their classmates in the event of sexual assault. Therefore, when creating training and education, it’s important to emphasize the lived experiences of all types of people and build a campus climate that supports victims, regardless of their identities.
  • Consider institutional policies. Research suggests that policies pertaining to sexual assault may impact students’ mental health in a positive way because it can help shape behavior and integrate support, according to a brief from the American Council on Education. Institutions are governed by federal Title IX policies, but having clear guidance on the institution’s role and expectations around sexual misconduct can help.
  • Promote available resources. Many students are unaware of existing campus service offerings and resources available to them to promote their health and well-being. Staff and faculty can help in bridging this knowledge gap by sharing resources.

Do you have a wellness tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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