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“Mental Health in Higher Education as a Financial Incentive”

As institutions put the final touches on their annual reports and requested fiscal budgets, we’d be remiss to not consider how mental health initiatives can be a financial incentive in retaining students.

Retention in higher education continues to be a buzz word yet has been such for what feels like forever.  This time of year, Directors of offices within Student Affairs are submitting annual reports and advocating for more funding for next year; specifically funding around mental health initiatives that will support and re-engage students.  Sadly, these Directors and their employees will soon discover, if they haven’t already, that the further up the request goes the harder it is to get support!  Let’s use an analogy.

Picture a jawbreaker.  Yes, the tooth-shattering childhood candy.  Each layer is a different color, flavor, and consistency.  The exterior shell is extremely hard to just break thru, hence the name.  Once you get through several layers to the center, the sugar can dissolve on your tongue in seconds.  Read: the exterior shell as the Business-minded Administrators (Dean of Students, Provosts, President, etc.) on campus. Read: the interior as direct-care staff both within Academics and Student Affairs who are interacting with students daily.  You may now begin to understand the political bureaucracy within higher education.

Let’s flip this script.  If you opened a box of Jawbreakers only to find that the consistency was reversed, you’d find it off-putting bythe time you got to the center of the jawbreaker.  To have a piece of candy so easily dissolve to then only getting harder the longer you have it in your mouth?  No thanks!  Now see that as the defeatist mindset that a lot of these Millenials as Directors of Students Affairs offices are experiencing.  They see the need.  They can easily get through to a couple layers, but once they get to the hard shell, they’re completely shut out.  They might even break a tooth!  Let that sink it for a second.   

In trying to bring some institutions of higher education up-to-speed with Generation Z, it’s paramount that we navigate getting through the exterior shell.  From the inside, Directors and direct-care staff are beating their head against a wall on behalf of their students.  On the outside, professionals like myself are trying to crack the exterior to then get to those direct-care staff in an effort to help support college students.  It feels like a lose-lose situation often.  Alas, I’ve got endless drive when it comes to fighting for the mental health supports for emerging adults!

Retention will most likely continue to be a buzz point.  Until there is a serious overhaul on how things are done in Higher Education, retention will be the bottom line for funding.  What we can agree with is if it starts at the top, it will be taken more seriously.  From a business standpoint, we can assume that Administrators are reading the research on the largest growing populations of future students.  In seeing that research, they will find that those populations include Autism and students with pre-existing Mental Health issues.  For the Administrators that read this research, they may see the opportunity for a marketing initiative.  Recruiting could become a breeze!  With the best resources on campus to serve these populations, a college will be highly sought after.  Let’s briefly compare it to Athletics.

It’s like recruiting a Football player.  You say “look at our facilities, meet the coaches, check out our campus, etc.”  This football player wants to see that the programming is built around them so they can be successful at your school.  They don’t want to walk in an see outdated facilities, unenthusiastic coaches, or a dilapidated-looking campus.  Similar to recruiting for Athletics, colleges and universities need to seriously reconsider when they receive a funding request that will build out more mental health supports on campus.

Not every Counseling office has evolved.  Disability Resource offices are typically understaffed for extended periods.  Case Management teams are slammed and don’t have the ability to visit and research treatment programs they’re recommending for students leaving campus, which is a major liability. There is miscommunication and stigmas on campus regarding Medical Leave.  Not to mention departments fighting over the bragging rights of “owning” a program to receive the credit.  I only wish I could say this wasn’t real life, yet I experienced it myself when I worked on campus.

Classrooms also may not be outfitted with the most up-to-date technology which makes evolving learning needs inaccessible for future populations of students.  Some colleges are truly still functioning like they’re in the 1930’s.  Gone are those days!  We need to bring every office, every department, every facility up to speed to support these students.  The only way that can be done is if Administrators consider providing more funding for mental health resources and initiatives.

The irony behind this retention focus still leaves a large gap in the difference between first-year retention and graduation rates.  I’m not calling anyone out specifically. I’m saying that graduation rates across the nation are abysmal.  It’s the truth.  Regardless, we need to seriously beef up the supports for these growing populations of students.  The only way it can be done is if Administrators take a break from wearing their business lens and just look around campus.  You’ll see student seriously struggling.  Students that don’t feel like they belong.  Students that withdraw from campus after only being there a month.  Students that are desperate for help, yet have a debilitating fear of failure compounded by shame regarding a mental health stigma.  They would rather drop out than get help.  What if we explored providing funding to better capture that population from flying away in droves?     

Let’s pop open a box of jawbreakers and let the flavors help us decide.

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