Exploring the wellbeing of students past and present

Earlier this year, Canada's PSE professionals told us that campus mental health would be the greatest challenge facing the higher ed sector in 2018. Three months later, their prediction looks to be spot-on. A cursory glance at the archives of the Academica Top Ten reveals that mental health, and the broader topic of campus wellness, continue to weigh heavily on the minds of the postsecondary community.

In light of the urgency surrounding this subject, we surveyed nearly 4,000 members of Academica’s student and alumni panels - StudentVu and the Academica Research Panel - to get a glimpse of wellness on and off campus.

About one-quarter of respondents were alumni or individuals who’d recently left the postsecondary system (30%), while nearly three-quarters of respondents were current postsecondary students (70%). Two-thirds of surveyed postsecondary students were attending university (most commonly, University of Alberta, University of Calgary, University of Toronto, and University of Waterloo); and one-third were attending college (Humber College, George Brown College, and Seneca College).

These respondents came from a wide variety of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, but for the purposes of this study were grouped into three categories: 1) Employed students, who were employed during the school year, 2) Unemployed students, who did not have formal employment during the school year, and 3) Employed former students, including both graduates and early leavers.

Overall, we found that respondents who were out of school and employed reported significantly more positive physical, mental, and social wellbeing than those who were only enrolled in postsecondary school. These employed former students also reported higher levels of mental and social wellbeing than current students who were employed.

When it came to respondents' lifestyles and habits, this dividing line between current students and former students appeared most starkly in their habits regarding eating, socialization, exercise, and other health-related activities.

Poor eating habits were a common phenomenon among currently enrolled postsecondary students. These students were more likely than those who were not currently enrolled to say that in the past week, they had not eaten breakfast or a home-cooked meal, and that they had eaten fast food every day.

One such respondent recommended that institutions take a more direct approach to ensuring that healthy food options are available:

"Put money into feeding students healthy meals. So many (myself included) live off nothing but Red Bull and McMuffins during exam times because we're broke and have no time to prepare meals and it takes a toll on you."

Another respondent added simply:

"allow for healthier, more reasonably priced options for food."

Employed students were more likely than employed former students and unemployed students to say that, in the past week, they hadn’t spent at least 30 minutes participating in moderate or vigorous physical activity (29% vs 19%, 23%). Unemployed students were significantly more likely than their employed peers to walk/jog to school (34% vs 20%) and less likely to drive (22% vs 31%). Unemployed students were also significantly more likely to say that they spent over two hours on screens for non-school/work purposes every day (62%), compared to employed former students (52%) or employed students (54%).

When students reported a lack of exercise, it didn’t necessarily translate into spending more time with friends. Employed former students were significantly more likely than current students (employed or not) to say that they had spent quality time with a friend or family member every day (33% vs 24%, 25%). By contrast, current students said that they had not spent positive social time with someone else in the previous week.

To solve the isolation that many students experience, one respondent suggested that institutions could "offer discounts to gym, social clubs, activities and etc." in an effort to improve wellness on campus, a suggestion that would benefit a student both financially and socially.

Overall, a number of students noted that the inability to eat, exercise, sleep, and socialize in a manner that would help their health was due to a sheer lack of time or the stress of their studies.

Respondents also called for changes in the classroom, such as changing the pacing of courses to provide students with more time to complete and understand class content. "University courses are fast-paced, built in such a way that you feel the need to try and grasp the concept enough to memorize it to dump it on an exam," explained one alumnus. "I find I can remember elements from 2009 when I was at the NSCC, but cannot remember something from the semester before with a university course." Others asked for broader structure and scheduling changes that would see more space and time created between assignments and exams.

Outside of the classroom, students raised suggestions such as improving institutional policies, bringing in additional mental health professionals to reduce wait times, and increasing awareness and availability of resources on campus. Quite a few also pointed to the success of dog therapy days, which one respondent called "the best part of my month."

"Fix the accessibility of your mental health services," wrote one student. "Cut the waiting list down by getting more staff. Make professors care about their students' stress and health. Make sure your medical facility is accessible."

Wall of Fame:

Recommendations for better supports were often accompanied by comments on how students and alumni had benefited from their own institutions’ efforts.

"In college, I was always met with friendly, helpful administrators who either gave me the help I needed or clear directions as to where I should go," explained one student, who emphasized the need for similar structures and experiences at larger universities.

"The U of A [University of Alberta] is very actively promoting physical and mental well-being," said another student. "I am proud to be a part of this."

Another student pointed to Mount Royal University's meditation room and student association events as positive initiatives, while another commended Trinity Western University's supports.

Recommendations to Schools

"We are humans, work with us. We have feelings and get stress, feel free to not just offer help, but show it and prove it in the halls." - Panelist

With physical and mental wellness maintaining a high level of priority at many institutions, it can be difficult to decide what must be done next. The stresses and needs of students are relatively uniform across the country, yet every institution is unique in its positioning, successes, and opportunities. Instead of recommending one solution for the whole sector, we'd like to relay a common recommendation from our survey respondents: ask your students what they need and bring their insights into the decision-making process.

If you would like to discuss how Academica can help you to survey your students on their experience at your institution, and how the institution could better support their wellbeing, please don't hesitate to contact us. Or if you’d rather chat on the phone, give us a call toll-free at 1-866-922-8636 ext. 228.

Method:

The Wellness Survey was conducted with 3,732 respondents from the Academica Research Panel and StudentVu panel. These respondents represent both current students and alumni of postsecondary institutions from across Canada. The survey was in-field online in January 2018. All data for current students were weighted by institution type, gender, and age as per Statistics Canada data.

It all starts with a deep understanding of the sector, the institution and the stakeholder groups. We’ll bring our two decades of applicant and student survey data and combine it with custom research that is specific to the challenge you’re facing or strategy you’re considering.

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