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How colleges can combat student disengagement and increase socioemotional readiness

June 24, 2024, By Alexa Silverman, Senior Director, Student Experience and Well-Being Research

Student mental health, while far from a new challenge, is impacting students’ ability to succeed and thrive in college in the wake of Covid-19.

Students today have low levels of socioemotional readiness, to the extent that one undergraduate dean said they “almost seem like they’re paralyzed”. That phrase sums up the stories our research team heard from 50+ academic leaders in the US, Canada, and overseas. We heard about students who attend class but don’t complete assignments, live in residence halls but barely speak to their peers, or attend advising appointments without any idea of what they want to major in or what courses they want to take.

Today’s students are already overwhelmed and that is why it is more important than ever for colleges to help them navigate the confusing maze of policies and processes, building self-efficacy and resiliency skills along the way. Below are three EAB recommendations for how institutions can reduce student anxiety and help students become self-advocates.

Recommendation 1: Streamline self-serve resources to reduce intimidation barriers to academic planning

Imagine you’re a new college student and you’ve just learned that you’re required to meet with someone called an advisor. You don’t know why this meeting is required. Are you in trouble? Is this advisor like your high school guidance counselor? You don’t know what you want to major in; can your advisor help?

Leaders at The Ohio State University realized that they could answer these questions before students showed up at the advising office, so the first meeting didn’t have to be so nerve-wracking. Their Preparing for an Advising Appointment website (see the section on Preparing for Specific Types of Appointments) is formatted as simple questions and dialogue prompts for students to use.

Similarly, Minnesota State University-Mankato condensed an in-person orientation presentation on gen ed requirements down to a 4-minute video, similar to the length of a TikTok post. The video explains how gen ed requirements work, how to register, and why gen ed is important for developing the skills and knowledge students will use throughout college and their careers. Students can also dive in deeper with a guide organized by video time stamp so they can easily find the answer to a specific question.

Check out the student self-service features in Navigate360, higher ed’s leading CRM

Recommendation 2: Connect students with peers and community members when an authority figure seems too intimidating

Even with the right preparation resources, some students may still be intimated by advisors who feel like authority figures far removed from their day-to-day lives. Ultimately, students do need to become comfortable seeking support from advisors and other staff on campus, but their peers and community members can be the first step in helping them get there.

At the fourteen institutions with LeanOnMe organizations, students can anonymously text LeanOnMe’s 24/7 hotline and a trained student member of their own campus’s LeanOnMe chapter will respond. Students can bring questions about academics, family and relationships, stress, or long-term plans. The hotline is a way for students to connect with other students like them at their own institution, who have experienced some of the same challenges and setbacks. They know that the anonymous peer they are texting tonight on LeanOnMe might be sitting next to them in math tomorrow. LeanOnMe now reaches thousands of students per year nationwide, and most conversations happen overnight, when most campus offices are closed.

Recommendation 3: Provide hands-on case management to navigate the highest-need students through the college maze

Some students’ needs go beyond what a peer conversation or a one-off meeting with a first-generation specialist could provide. In fact, they may need ongoing check-ins across multiple different services and offices, from advising to academic coaching, financial support, and more. But they don’t show up. Maybe they’re too overwhelmed to remember what their advisor recommended, too anxious to ask for help, or lack the time management skills to manage a schedule of appointments.

As this subset of students grows beyond what individual advisors can handle on top of their caseload, we’ve begun to see institutions create dedicated case manager roles. Case managers can help identify students with multiple types of acute need, work with them to create a calendar of appointments, and follow up to make sure they actually attended the appointments and got the help they needed.

These roles (typically called college navigators) were common at community colleges before 2020, but now, 4-year institutions are adopting the model too. For example, Texas Tech University’s student success specialists serve in a similar role. While it’s tough for many universities to hire in today’s “less with less” era of budgeting, many institutions are also struggling to retain advising staff. These roles can be a promotion opportunity for advisors who want to grow their skills and specialize, instead of leaving the institution to look for a more senior role.

Engage faculty in building socioemotional skills in the classroom

Rebuilding students’ socioemotional readiness in the wake of the pandemic will take a campus-wide effort. That means involving faculty too. Read EAB’s executive briefing via the link below to learn how to better engage faculty in student mental health and well-being support.

Alexa Silverman

Senior Director, Student Experience and Well-Being Research

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