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Steering Students in a Healthy Direction

NASPA’s president Kevin Kruger discusses the complex nature of issues facing college and university student affairs professionals as they seek to address the needs of today’s students.

By Michael Hager

Today's students are more likely to bring with them to their respective universities a history of depression, psychological or adjustment issues, and even conditions that require significant treatment protocols. Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, argues that senior leaders must work together to provide adequate support to students while not overburdening student affairs staff.

Here is a continuation of the conversation with Kruger on the important partnership between chief business and chief student affairs officers. To read the earlier section of the interview, see the "On Balance" article in the January 2016 issue of Business Officer.

You often mention the need to provide wraparound services for students. How are these different today than 10 years ago?

The number of students coming to campus with either psychological issues or more challenging adjustment issues has been increasing over the past decade or more. This has been well documented by the counseling center directors who report ongoing and significant increases in cases that require fairly substantial treatment regimens. We have a significant number of students who are pre-medicated on psychotropic medication and an increasing number of students who are pre-diagnosed with a depressive disorder. In order for these students to succeed and advance in their academic pursuits, they need continuing psychosocial support and, in some cases, long-term counseling.

Is this the role of the institutionto assume this burden?

You can argue that it is not. Yet, whether from an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standpoint or otherwise, we increasingly seem to be in a position where we need to provide those services, and that has been a real challenge for counseling center directors. With this increased demand, it has become something of a norm that for the low-level psychological issues, students may have to wait a week or two to even get an appointment. That can have a ripple effect throughout the campus.

Not addressing these psychological issues or providing the kind of support services needed has two outcomes. One is a retention issue. For many of these students, without the kinds of psychological support they need, they won't graduate. Another outcome is increased potential for disruptive behaviors in the classroom or in residence halls, the student union, or out in the community. So, trying to address these needs in a proactive and preventive way is really important. Bottom line, you can never hire enough counselors, so the key is to develop prevention strategies that help students develop good coping skills and become more resilient and able to problem-solve on their own to address some of the normal transitional issues that many adolescents experience.

As an aside, there was a great article in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic, "The Coddling of the American Mind," about whether parents have inadvertently overprotected students. In giving them too many trophies, we have perhaps robbed them of the challenges and ups and downs of life. I think some believe this is why we're seeing more psychosocial issues as students come into campus. They don't have the ability to respond to life's everyday hurdles in the way that perhaps previous generations have, and that is putting demands on our campus professionals to try and help.

Is it ever appropriate for an institution to encourage students to take time off from their educational pursuits? 

Absolutely. In particular, if a student is having a difficult time functioning normally, or you worry that the student may be a threat to himself or herself, this may signal the need to, in a proactive way, suggest stopping out to receive more in-depth therapeutic work that can't be managed by the campus. That said, this is an area where the federal government has intervened. Up until about three or four years ago, the Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights had said that if we have a student who is potentially threatening to harm himself or herself, or is dysfunctional to the point that administrators are worried about the student's safety, we could pursue a psychological withdrawal to send the student home to get necessary treatment. We have essentially lost that as one of the strategies we can employ because of more recent guidance from the Department of Justice and Office of Civil Rights viewing a person's behavior as a disability.               So, given the current ADA interpretation, we can no longer do a psychological withdrawal, which I think in some cases puts students at risk because we are now forced to handle this through a disciplinary process. Now we must work proactively with a student and perhaps his or her family to suggest taking some time off. If the student resists that suggestion and continues to exhibit negative behavior, it becomes very difficult for an institution to deal with that student in a way that may be in the best interest of his or her health and safety.

Alcohol abuseand in particular, binge drinkingremains an issue across the country. What are campuses doing or what should they be doing on this front?

The good news is that over the past decade we actually have seen some decrease in the prevalence of binge drinking or high-risk drinking in which students are engaged. That is encouraging, because we certainly have put a lot of time into this. Several things seem to be important contributors to this progress. There is evidence that some kind of online course or non-credit course required for all studentsparticularly during the freshmen year, which is one of the highest-risk time periods for binge drinkingreduces the prevalence of that high-risk behavior. I know of many campuses that are investing in these from a prevention education standpoint.

There still is important work we can do in what's called "social norming," and that is to reinforce for students that not everyone is binge drinking. In fact, a fairly small number of students are engaging in this highest-risk behavior. In that effort I think we can do a better job educating different sectors of the campus about the impact of alcohol on both health and academic performance. For example, we have partnered with the NCAA Division III to develop a free, online resource for campuses. The idea is that the coach, the trainer, and the vice president of student affairs all have a much closer connection to their athletes and can help them understand the negative impact alcohol has on them and their athletic performance.

I also think it is critical to help students understand in a broader sense some of the risks related to alcohol. For example, the University of Maryland has done some great research looking at the number of nights that a student binge drinks and the number of nights he or she uses marijuana. These are two different studies, but they co-occur, and there is a very strong correlation between the frequency of these behaviors and the likelihood of a student not staying in school. So, helping students understand that these are not harmless behaviors is also a piece of the educational process.

With regard to enforcement, campuses have been successful when they enforce [laws against] underage drinking and enforce alcohol-free zones on campus. I think you need both of those things in placeeducation as well as appropriate enforcementto deter students from engaging in high-risk behavior. I wouldn't say this is an intractable problem, but it has been a top-five issue on college campuses for as long as I've been in higher education. There is something about this coming-of-age phase and an interest in experimenting that creates perennial challenges in this space.

With regard to the random yet too prevalent occurrence of gun violence and mass shootings in our society, and occasionally on our own campuses, how do college and university leaders help students feel safe?

I don't know how we change the narrative in getting state legislators away from the notion that a campus will be safer if we allow students to carry guns on campus. Other than that, I think the best response is what more campuses are doing, which is training faculty, staff, and students to understand how to respond to an act of violence on campus, so that they are better prepared to deal with any number of situations of violence that may occur. The mental health behavioral intervention that we do on campus certainly can be a part of that process.

And so it's certainly a best practice for every campus to have a behavioral intervention team comprised of university faculty and staff, campus police, and counseling center personnel who meet on a routine basis to discuss students who are exhibiting behavior that might be troubling and to develop plans to potentially intervenenot only with regard to shooting instances but also to identifying students who may be a significant threat to themselves. In the same way that training becomes more important, I think we have to look at our campus law enforcement. Some campuses are rethinking decisions not to have armed police officers on campus, and so expansion of campus law enforcement is certainly one strategy.

You often mention the importance of student services to retention. From your observation of campuses across the country, what would you identify as best practices in this arena?

Low-income students can be particularly difficult to engage. Because they often intersect with the campus through work study, there are some very creative examples of campuses that are using student employment as an educational opportunity to engage students and develop their leadership skills.

I am also very interested in student affairs expanding its capacity for data analytics to help us understand the kinds of experiences that lead to student success so that at the individual student level we can reach down and identify students who are struggling and find ways to enhance their connection to the institution. Many campuses are doing this on the academic side of the house by looking at the learning management system in a predictive way, to identify early onby virtue of their behaviorsthe students who are struggling in class. I think we can do a similar thing in the student affairs arena. For instance, perhaps we can we identify students who areor are notchecking in at the rec center, or participating in a club or activity, or assuming a leadership role. This could help us assess the level of student engagement with the institution. In the same way that we're nudging students academically, we might be able to nudge those students to find ways to engage on campus and in student activities. Perhaps by identifying students who are disengaged, we will find they are having difficulty making the adjustment to college-level studies, or they have a financial issue. Whatever the issue might be, early identification and intervention could improve opportunities for increasing retention.

A third example, which we are involved in right now with a Gates Foundation grant, is looking at the impact of emergency funds. What we know anecdotally is that for low-income students, a small financial burden or emergency can spell the difference between discontinuous enrollment and continuous enrollment. A car repair, or a medical bill, or something that may be in the several-hundred-dollar range could be enough to make students drop out because they can't afford to continue their enrollment. Most every campus has emergency funds set aside. These funds may be small, and sometimes they are unadvertised. Yet, for a small number of students, that little bit of money can make a big difference in their continued enrollment.

Something else of value, not only for low-income students but for all students, is to equip them with the set of skills and competencies that helps them be successful in terms of time management and technological proficiency. If we can begin to instill these skills in students during their freshman year, that can go a long way toward their sense of success.

Finally, as I've mentioned, all the mental health support that we provide can and should be seen as part of a larger retention strategy, because for that 20 to 25 percent of the population, the individual contact and the therapeutic support they get can make the difference between a student sticking it out or dropping out.

MICHAEL HAGER is senior vice president for administration and financial services at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, where he previously served as assistant vice president for student affairs and executive director of residence.


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