All Articles Education Insights A focus on higher education wellness programs

A focus on higher education wellness programs

How safety, well-being and inclusion efforts help lead to student success on higher education campuses.

8 min read


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Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

headshot of Rob Buelow for article on higher education wellness programs

In recent years, higher education institutions have taken a more comprehensive approach to wellness programs. Students today are looking for higher education institutions that recognize that college is more than just academic success and demonstrate commitment to addressing the interconnection between all aspects of their well-being — physical, emotional, social, intellectual, occupational and financial, to name a few. In fact, 82% of high school seniors indicated that safety, well-being and inclusion are as important as academic rigor when deciding where to attend college. Approaching these issues in an integrated way acknowledges that there are intersections across the various facets of well-being and that each of them are critical for students and employees alike to truly thrive. Focusing on providing wellness-related education and skills outside of the classroom is fundamental to student and institutional success.

Wellness programs help solve higher ed business challenges

Safety, well-being, and inclusion efforts are table stakes for current and prospective students. These are also critical components for solving the challenges higher education institutions are facing around declining enrollment, increased competition, rising costs, changing expectations and demographics, and growing questions of value and relevance. Every campus leader believes that safety, well-being and inclusion are important, but these issues are often too underfunded and understaffed to achieve their transformational potential. While central to the mission, these issues often live at the margins of the business of higher education, despite the fact that they are directly connected to the strategic, bottom-line priorities that presidents, cabinets and boards care about most. 

For example, high-profile mismanagement of safety and well-being issues has been found to decrease a college’s applications by up to 10%. From a business perspective, investing in safety, inclusion and well-being helps colleges and universities keep pace with the expectations of students as customers — creating the conditions for them to acquire the knowledge and skills they’re paying for to become conscientious global citizens who can thrive in their careers and communities. 

Prevention: An investment, not an expense

Prevention efforts on campus align with a number of strategic priorities ranging from regulatory compliance to campus safety to student success outcomes. There is a direct connection between safety, well-being and inclusion programs and student success. Prevention efforts and wellness programs have the ability to drive outcomes on some of higher education’s biggest challenges: from enrollment to academic performance to retention to career readiness to alumni engagement. Given their strategic value and impact, higher education leaders should think about wellness programs as an investment, not an expense. Our research has shown that investment in wellness programs drastically improves first-year retention and four-year graduation rates, which, in-turn, generates additional tuition revenue that far exceeds their investment in prevention resources, demonstrating significant return on investment. More importantly, prevention and wellness programs work toward creating healthy, well-rounded individuals as they leave college and embark on the next phase of their lives. This makes prevention the required thing to do, the right thing to do and the smart thing to do for the future of higher education and the communities we serve.

What programs work and why

Good prevention work must be tailored to the unique needs and identities of target audiences, but sound prevention science is fairly universal across various wellness issues and communities. Schools should be leveraging research and data on effective well-being practices to ensure consistency in approach and outcomes. While wellness programs should address a wide variety of topics, mental health, diversity and inclusion, and substance misuse have been top of mind in recent years.

Mental Health

Levels of stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression are at all-time highs — even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health is tied to almost every other safety and well-being issue schools address, including sexual assault, substance misuse, discrimination, hazing and beyond. 

  • At a time of limited resources and more demand than counseling centers can service, schools are bolstering their mental health efforts with peer support initiatives, online education programs and virtual health care.
  • Students are often the entry point in terms of supporting those struggling with mental health challenges. In a national survey, the most common source of support for students with mental health concerns was friends, with 74% of respondents reporting they had turned to friends for help. Thus, mental health training is critical to ensure that students have the language and skills to be an effective support for the people they care about. 
  • Additionally, peer programs are showing promising data for engaging students of color and other marginalized populations in seeking and receiving support, as these populations often face stigma that may deter them from utilizing other resources like traditional counseling centers. 
  • An example of this work in action is the SHIFT and Texas Well-Being initiatives at University of Texas at Austin. These initiatives take a multidisciplinary approach to engaging students and faculty around issues of mental health, belonging, substance misuse and more. 

Diversity and Inclusion

  • The demographics of our country and the student population in higher education are changing significantly. For example, in 1976, 85% of college students were white, and 47% were female. Today, 52% of students are white, and 60% are female. 
  • To understand and address the needs of the current population of students, we must consider the changing demographic of our institutions. Perpetuating the systems and services of the past does not allow colleges and universities to serve today’s student population. 
  • More “diversity” without more “equity, inclusion, and belonging” does not adequately address or serve the increasingly diverse student population on campuses today. Higher education institutions must provide the resources and services and foster the inclusive culture needed to support the increasing diversity of their communities, both in identity and ideology.
  • At the University of Michigan, the Wolverine Support Network is a peer program for students that focuses on empowering University of Michigan students to create an inclusive community and support each other’s identity, mental well-being and day-to-day lives.

Substance Abuse

  • Alcohol and substance misuse prevention training is not just about decreasing high-risk behaviors. From data over the past 20 years, the number of students engaging in risky or problematic drinking has decreased significantly, and the majority of students arriving on campus are either non-drinkers or abstainers. 
  • While the importance of preventing physical, relational and academic harms associated with high-risk alcohol use is recognized, it is also important to acknowledge that students who choose to not drink must also be supported in that decision. 
  • Schools should be providing alcohol-free options that compete with high-risk drinking times (Thursday through Saturday nights) to best support all populations of students.
  • The University of Vermont’s Wellness Environment creates community spaces and programs designed to foster healthy brains and healthy bodies, with participating students assigned to WE residence halls that stress a drug and alcohol-free environment.

Additionally, staff and faculty are critical drivers of the way students interact with their institution, their awareness of tools and resources, and their experience on campus. They are also often tasked with providing front-line support, interacting with students who are facing a range of wellness challenges. Making sure campus employees have the knowledge and skills to effectively support students and elevate their experience provides critical reinforcement to a well-being strategy.

Let’s be clear: Well-being is a journey, not a destination. One-off programs like an invited speaker or a community yoga class might be well received but likely won’t have sustained impact without ongoing engagement, skill-building and support. Institutions of higher education should be seeking to curricularize the outside-the-classroom experience of students in the same ways they build and deliver academic syllabi. In the same vein, wellness programs also must be grounded in sound research and data. This should include formative evaluation to determine what the actual needs of a community are, and a theory of change that supports relevant outcomes and program goals. Schools should also engage in process evaluation to make sure that they’re providing programs in the right way, at the right times and in the right places to reach their target audiences. And lastly, programs should be assessed for impact on identified learning and behavioral objectives to ensure they’re hitting the mark.


Rob Buelow serves as head of product for the education sector at Vector Solutions, which has researched this issue. He is an award-winning public health professional with deep expertise in leveraging social and behavioral science to solve the most pressing challenges facing campuses, companies, and communities. 

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 

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