Editor's Note: Shirley Collado is the president of Ithaca College, in New York.
One of my favorite times of year at Ithaca College is the start of fall semester. Thousands of students, faculty and staff return to our campus invigorated for the new academic year, and hundreds of new students arrive here for the first time to embark on transformative college experiences.
As this reconvening happens on campuses across the country, I am reminded of one of the core purposes of higher education: to serve a public good. When students graduate from our campuses, they will go on to join, build and enrich their communities in a rapidly changing and challenging world. In preparing young people to thrive, how might institutions around the country best set the stage for their success?
The cultivation of student wellness must be one of our greatest, most urgent priorities. Even with all the charged enthusiasm of the new academic year, we must recognize that the student experience can also come with anxieties and mental health challenges that demand thoughtful responses and care.
Far more college students seek out mental health services on campus than a decade ago. And even as schools do their best to respond to the increased demand, it can be a challenge to keep up with growing, shifting needs. Not only are more students seeking help, but the help they need is often different from what it was a few decades or even years ago. The old solutions are no longer adequate, and as academic, social and financial pressures evolve, so must the responses of higher education institutions tasked with caring for their communities.
For college leaders, this adds up to one undeniable truth: student wellness starts at the top. Today's campuses have an obligation to take an institution-wide approach to student wellness. This imperative is highlighted in a recent report from the American Council on Education (ACE), which surveyed over 400 college and university presidents about their engagement with student wellness. The report found that, compared to three years ago, eight out of 10 presidents say that students' mental health has become more of a priority on their campus, and seven in 10 said they are reallocating or identifying more funding to address it.
While these responses are encouraging, the report also makes clear that more needs to be done. It is not enough to task one department with the health of students across campus or to add a counselor or two and say we've done our job.
More than half of college leaders surveyed by ACE said they need more tools to address student mental health on campus — in particular, more professional development and training across diverse groups, including faculty, staff, and students. Presidents also say they need more tools to assess students and to help them enhance their own skills for coping and self-care.
For me, the takeaway from this report — as well as from our independent campus assessment last year — is that caring for students means integrating support every step of the way. No two students are alike, and no single fix will address every student need. Institutions have to help students handle stress and anxiety before it becomes a crisis, and this relies on our ability to create systems that identify, assist and check in with students in distress.
We have to understand, as well, that this is an intersectional challenge, and consider the different ways students of color, LGBTQ students, first-generation students and other marginalized groups experience life on our campuses.
Above all, we have to promote well-being in a variety of ways, including giving students the tools to thrive on their own.
To address so many different goals at once, at Ithaca College we have invested far and wide across campus, bringing on new counselors and case managers. Because calls for help can come at any time, we have expanded mental health services to provide counselor access 24/7, including on breaks. We have also created an Office of Health Promotion and a wellness-coaching program, both of which help students plan for success and make healthy lifestyle choices.
"The cultivation of student wellness must be one of our greatest, most urgent priorities."
President, Ithaca College
One of the programs I am most proud of is our ICare Team, which receives and reviews reports of students in distress to determine what support and intervention they need. Composed of campus officials engaged in every aspect of student life, the ICare Team facilitates the academic and personal success of students, contributes to the safety of the campus community and enhances student retention.
In today's world, college is more than a degree, more than an academic education. At residential schools especially, college is a place where young adults live, connect, explore and learn to thrive. College is a community — and the more we reach out to support one another, the stronger our community becomes.
When I meet with students during office hours, I hear not only about the passions that bring them to Ithaca College and their goals for the future, but also about the ups and downs, the challenges and questions, that come with being a student. I am grateful for these exchanges.
In addition to getting to know so many diverse, talented individuals, they remind me that students' needs are unique, and so are the ways that we, as campus communities, can support them. When we prioritize student wellness, we not only demonstrate our commitment to supporting individual students but also to supporting the creation of a compassionate, equitable world.