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Student affairs officers have full agendas on college campuses, as they're often the point person for issues around such inflammatory issues as sexual violence, race relations and free speech. But those issues don't appear anywhere near the top when student affairs leaders are asked which issues dominate their time. The topics that do: student mental health, cited by 94 percent, and student well-being, by 91 percent. All other issues lagged well behind.

This is from the first-ever Inside Higher Ed survey of student affairs leaders, conducted by Gallup. The survey was conducted from Jan. 16 to Feb. 12, before the coronavirus left most campuses without students. The survey included answers from only one person per institution, with coding to allow for comparisons by sector.

Among the other findings:

  • 78 percent of student affairs leaders said the number of campus visits to mental health professionals had "increased a lot" in the last five years, and 63 percent said the same for the number of students on prescription medicine for mental health issues.

More on the Survey

Inside Higher Ed's 2020 Survey of College and University Student Affairs Officers was conducted by Gallup. A copy of the report can be downloaded here.

Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys key higher ed professionals on a range of topics.

On Tuesday, April 28, at 2 p.m. Eastern, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webcast to discuss the results of the survey. Please register here.

The Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Student Affairs Officers was made possible in part with support from Everfi and Kognito.

  • Student affairs leaders classify race relations on their campuses as either excellent (6 percent) or good (48 percent). Another recent Inside Higher Ed survey, of college presidents, found that 77 percent rate them positively.
  • Student affairs leaders overwhelmingly (97 percent) say white students are treated well by other students on their campuses; far fewer (57 percent) say the same about black students …
  • Fifty-eight percent said that they believe their college's president is familiar enough with student affairs issues that when she or he makes a decision on student affairs, it's the right one.
  • On average, student affairs leaders estimate that 5 percent of their students are homeless, and 17 percent that their students are food insecure. (The numbers were higher at community colleges.)
  • Sixty-eight percent of student affairs leaders say students on their campus generally respect free speech rights. But more student affairs officers say that liberal speakers (83 percent) than conservative speakers (68 percent) are treated with respect when they visit campus.
  • Student affairs leaders generally have a positive view of Greek life on their campuses. Twenty-five percent said they are glad their campus has a Greek system and it is operating well; 64 percent said they are glad they have a Greek system but would like to improve it.

What They Spent Their Time On

When student affairs officers were asked which issues "you have paid a significant amount of attention to in the past year," the answers were mostly similar for public and private nonprofit institutions, with the exception of spending time on hunger and homeless, where public institutions were more likely to answer yes than privates, 73 to 31 percent. The public side was strengthened by community colleges, at 78 percent.

Student mental health93%96%
Student well-being89%94%
Hunger and homelessness73%31%
Race relations46%57%
Substance abuse40%38%
Interpersonal violence32%36%
Free expression on campus33%28%
Greek life19%21%

Mental Health

Half of student affairs leaders say they think about student mental health "a great deal." The percentages were highest at public doctoral institutions (68 percent) and private baccalaureate colleges (66 percent), and lowest at community colleges (36 percent).

Asked to rate the mental health of students, only 1 percent of student affairs leaders said that it was excellent. Thirty-four percent said that it was good, 58 percent fair and 8 percent poor. Seventy percent of officials at private baccalaureate institutions and 74 percent at public doctoral institutions said their students' mental health was either fair or poor.

Consider these two figures -- on the volume of visits to campus mental heath professionals and on the number of students receiving prescription medicine in the last five years. Both show substantial gains.

Volume of Visits to See Mental Health Professionals in the Last Five Years

Increased a lot76%81%
Increased a little22%18%
Not increased2%<1%

Volume of Students on Campus Receiving Prescription Medication for Mental Health Issues

Increased a lot63%62%
Increased a little35%38%
Not increased2%0%

One issue students have complained about at many colleges concerns limits placed on the number of times a student can see a mental health professional on campus. Half of those at public colleges have such limits, and 46 percent of private colleges have such limits.

The respondents -- at public and private colleges alike -- also expressed concern about the impact of students' mental health issues on mental health professionals.

Last year, the head of counseling at the University of Pennsylvania died by suicide; he had complained about the demands of the job.

Of respondents to the survey, 37 percent said they were very concerned about the impact of student mental health issues on the mental health of those who treat them, and 45 percent were somewhat concerned.

The survey found colleges to be split on the use of outside providers for mental health. Forty-seven percent said they do -- with a higher percentage at public (51 percent) than at private institutions (39 percent).

But those that do use them are at least somewhat satisfied. Thirty percent of respondents said they were very satisfied, and 61 percent were somewhat satisfied.

Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said via email that he was "not surprised" by the data on mental health.

"We see incidents of self-reported depressive episodes increasing year over year for adolescent boys and girls. These young people end up on our college campuses. It is the reality of the increases we are seeing that has resulted in a major reinvestment in health promotion and prevention efforts on campus. There is a clear understanding on campus that the long-term solutions must include population-level wellness and well-being initiatives in addition to therapeutic interventions."

Race Relations

The survey asked a series of questions about race relations, similar to those asked in a recent poll of college presidents.

Both sets of officials were asked to assess the state of race relations in higher education nationally and on their own campuses, and the surveys found student affairs to be more skeptical in both cases. Both student affairs leaders and college presidents were more likely to see problems in American higher education at large than on their campuses.

How Are Race Relations on Your Campus?

 Student Affairs OfficersPresidents

How Are Race Relations in Higher Education?

 Student Affairs OfficersPresidents

But despite this view, 31 percent of student affairs leaders said their institution has done a lot to support diversity and inclusion on campus, at 48 percent said it done something to promote diversity and inclusion.

One question on the survey asked the student affairs leaders how various groups of students at their college are treated. The very best off, they said, were white students. Minority students -- and conservative students -- did not do as well.

How Student Groups Are Treated

 % Saying 'Very Well'% Saying 'Well'
White students44%53%
Male students29%64%
Christian students34%56%
Liberal students23%64%
Female students22%64%
Asian American students13%69%
Jewish students16%60%
Latinx students15%61%
International students18%53%
Native American students15%53%
Conservative students13%51%
LGBTQ students14%47%
Muslim students11%50%
Black students11%46%

Kruger said that "college campuses across the country struggle with racial climate issues -- particularly at predominantly white institutions. Student affairs vice presidents see these issues on an individual level in their interactions with students across all races and ethnicities. College presidents may see a healthier climate as measured by fewer protests, but student affairs professionals are more likely to hear the stories that students of color experience in their daily lives. These can be the big stories of racism that make the news -- but often are found in the daily interactions student of color experience in the classroom, in their residence hall or simply walking through the campus. That only 54 percent of [the respondents] have a positive view of race relations on campus is indicative of the significant work that needs to be done on this critical issue."

One of the most controversial issues in student affairs is free speech on campus. Seventy-eight percent of student affairs leaders believe their campus is excellent or good "as a place where students can express their ideas and opinions freely." Public institutions were more likely than private institutions to answer that way.

Student affairs leaders also believe -- but narrowly -- that their campuses host speakers representing a range of political viewpoints.

Campuses and Free Speech

 Strongly AgreeAgreeNeutralDisagreeStrongly Disagree
Students on my campus generally respect free speech rights.15%53%25%6%1%
Faculty members on my campus generally respect free speech rights.20%50%23%6%2%
My campus hosts speakers representing a range of political viewpoints.14%27%32%16%11%
Conservative academics and public figures are treated with respect when they visit my campus.22%46%23%7%2%
Liberal academics and public figures are treated with respect when they visit my campus.35%48%14%2%1%

Some of the most contentious issues surrounding campus speech are whether students understand why free speech is important on campus, and the punishments (if any) for those who disrupt free speech.

Colleges generally bar students from protesting a speaker in a way that would disrupt speech, but permit protests that don't. For example, at many colleges there would be no consequence for protesting a speaker outside the designated venue, but some colleges would punish interrupting or shouting down a speaker.

The answers reveal strong disagreement among the student affairs leaders.

Free Speech Issues

 Strongly AgreeAgreeNeutralDisagreeStrongly Disagree
Student understand why free speech is important in academe.6%23%37%26%8%
Those who interrupt, shout down or disrupt campus speakers represent a threat to academic freedom.18%36%25%12%8%
Colleges should remove those who disrupt campus speakers from the speaking venue.14%36%33%11%7%
Colleges should punish those who disrupt campus speakers.6%21%41%22%11%
Colleges should not interfere with invitations extended to outside speakers by student groups or faculty members.12%25%32%23%9%

Another issue that has consumed student affairs leaders on many campuses is sexual assault. The Trump administration is expected -- perhaps in coming days -- to propose substantial changes to the federal rules spelling out colleges' responsibilities in preventing and dealing with sexual assault.

The answers on this issue were split: large majorities said that higher education must improve the way it responds to issues of sexual assault, but they asserted that their institutions handle sexual assault allegations appropriately.

Sexual Assault

 Strongly AgreeAgreeNeutralDisagreeStrongly Disagree
Higher education institutions must improve the way they respond to allegations of sexual assault on campus.36%38%19%5%3%
My institution handles sexual assault allegations appropriately.47%41%9%2%1%
Allegations of sexual assault are best investigated by local law enforcement rather than colleges and universities.11%16%23%24%26%

Low-Income Students

While there have always been homeless and hungry students on campuses, the issue has gained considerable attention in recent years.

Nonetheless, only a minority of colleges know how many of their students are either homeless or food insecure. Thirty-four percent of respondents said their college attempts to measure the share of students who are homeless. (The figure was 48 percent at community colleges.) A higher percentage -- 47 percent -- said their college measures the percentage of students who are food insecure.

Homeless and Hungry Students

 Less Than 5%5% to Less Than 10%10% to Less Than 15%15% to Less Than 20%20% or More
Just your best guess, what percentage of students at your college are homeless?56%26%9%4%5%
Just your best guess, what percentage of students at your college are food insecure?16%22%14%8%41%

Colleges were also asked if they provide certain things to students who are homeless or food insecure.

Food donations95%70%
Assistance in finding part-time work82%75%
Meal plan assistance44%58%
Medical care42%57%
A place to live24%53%

The survey also included a series of questions on issues facing colleges.

On the issue of monitoring students' social media accounts, only 14 percent said that their college monitors students accounts. But the percentage was higher at private institutions (17 percent) than at public institutions.

Student affairs leaders agreed (barely) that the needs of residential students dominate their agendas. And only a minority of student affairs leaders agreed that students' career services expectations are unreasonable.

The needs of residential students dominate my agenda.38%59%
Compared to three years ago, I am focusing more of my time on students' academic issues.32%43%
Students' career services expectations have become unreasonable.10%24%

Student affairs leaders also were asked to respond to the statement "My president has enough knowledge of student affairs issues that when he or she makes a decision, it is the right one."

Twenty-one percent strongly agreed, while 37 percent agreed, 23 percent were neutral, 11 percent disagreed and 7 percent strongly disagreed. At community colleges, 30 percent of the student affairs leaders strongly agreed.

Kruger of NASPA said about this finding, "Virtually every vice president of student affairs who has served in their role for more than 10 years would say that their role is qualitatively different than it was even five years ago. The reality is that the issues, problems and challenges of the modern campus are significantly different than they were when most members of the president’s cabinet themselves were students. This can create a kind of lag in decision making that is grounded in an understanding of what is happening on campus today.

"For example, the protests we have seen on campus the last five years caught many campuses by surprise. Where student affairs staff would have seen the increase in activism among this newer group of students increasing over the years. Finally, it is almost in the student affairs ethos to make their work seem effortless and to quietly manage the ongoing challenges and crises on campus. Most respondents try to keep these issues from rising up the president’s desk -- which on the one hand is a good instinct, but can also lead to the kind of disconnect the survey data suggests."