Even before COVID-19 became a full-blown pandemic, college students were experiencing alarming rates of suicidality, anxiety, and depression. The reasons were historically complex, varying from loneliness and academic and social pressure, to worries about debt. Low-income and underrepresented students faced additional challenges and burdens like poverty, housing, and food insecurity. These stressors, combined with a lack of healthy coping habits were already taking a tough toll on American college students.
Colleges and universities were also under financial pressure long before the crisis, and couldn’t meet student demands for mental health services or business and industry demands for workers with strong social-emotional skills. Philanthropists had been trying to fill the gaps, supporting scholarships, student activities, and seeking innovative ways to make meaningful change in the sector.
COVID-19 came along and made things worse. All students took a major hit, in one way or another. But as campuses shuttered, disparities and inequities among students became impossible to ignore. Some students could easily transition to a safe space to continue their learning; others could not. Online learning, once believed to be a great equalizer, caused (and is still causing) an even bigger rift between those with access to quality internet services and digital devices and those without.
Various surveys captured the deteriorating state of student mental health and well-being during the pandemic. One found that eighty percent of college students reported that COVID-19 had a negative impact on their mental health. Students reported feeling lonely, indicating that an approach to address social isolation is needed. Students aren’t the only ones feeling the strain -- campus leaders are in crisis mode, developing fall and spring plans, contingency plans, and blended learning plans which seem to be changing by the day. Student mental health and well-being is at the forefront of everyone’s mind but is unfortunately taking a back seat to other funding and investment priorities.
Ultimately, the higher education ecosystem needs transformation. It’s been evident for a long time, but the difference is that because of the pandemic, we are all primed for change.
While there are efforts to solve for some of the immediate logistical roadblocks to learning, there is another area of investment to consider. Higher education leaders and employers agree that social emotional skills and positive well-being practices should be a part of postsecondary training to ensure student success beyond the education setting. Resiliency, self-regulation, and mindfulness are among the skills are essential to thrive in today’s climate, and higher education institutions are uniquely positioned to help students develop in this way.
The Center for Strategic Philanthropy has been examining the impact of the pandemic in four issue areas. Working with key philanthropists and stakeholders, we have uncovered a number of ways to promote well-being among students, faculty & staff, and the higher education sector during the 2020-2021 academic year and for the long term.
Philanthropists who want to support students directly can fund basic needs scholarships or resources for students to develop social emotional competencies.
Philanthropists can help faculty learn strategies to embed well-being practices in the structure and content of their courses, from brief mindfulness practices at the beginning of class to major subject-based projects. To incentivize participation in course redesign, some institutions have offered stipends or fellowships to faculty members.
Philanthropists who want to support an institution or the sector can fund strategic consulting services or facilitate the creation of a learning network for higher education.
Some education philanthropists already recognized the issue of well-being as a solution, and are advocating for and funding initiatives to promote well-being in higher education. For example, philanthropist and CSP partner Cindy Citrone, founder and CEO, of Citrone 33 is leading Unpack U—a back to campus campaign in Pittsburgh that addresses the unique transitions today’s college students are facing as they return to campus. By connecting students to a wide range of local resources and essential tools and facilitating COVID-safe social experiences, Unpack U seeks to amplify student voices while empowering self-discovery, and ultimately engaging in a larger movement to focus on their mental health.
The campaign is rising to meet moment, providing access to telehealth options, virtual opportunities to connect with the campus community, and encouraging self-discovery which are key elements in supporting student well-being. Recognizing that college students this fall are starting school with many unique needs, Unpack U is working with nine campus in Pittsburgh and the city’s sports teams.
“From what we see, young people are resilient and strong,” Citrone said. “Adding certain skills would help them cope even better with the situation at hand and excel in life, academics, and the workforce.”
There are hundreds of ways to make a difference in the short-term, and many more to support the sector in the long-term. The good news is that there are already evidence-based models for donors to scale and make an immediate impact on mental health and well-being—investments that will bear fruit for decades to come.
To learn more about how philanthropy can support students and faculty, please download our guide, Philanthropic Opportunities for Well-being in Higher Education.
This article originally appeared in Giving Compass on September 1, 2020.