Survey: Mental Health a Key Concern Among American University Leaders

Student reads about mental health seminar
While students mental health has always been a concern on college campuses, as this seminar from 2017 suggests, it’s the primary concern for university leaders right now, a new survey finds. (Photo: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan/Flickr)

What are the most pressing issues on the minds of college and university presidents? In short, students, whether it’s their mental health or the number of them now attending school.

These are findings from a recent survey from the American Council on Education, or ACE. In November, Brianna C.J. Clark and Morgan Taylor of ACE surveyed 113 presidents for their 2021 Fall Term Pulse Point Survey of College and University Presidents, Part II. The goal was to capture their views on critical issues facing higher education. The survey responses included 45 people who lead private four-year institutions (40 percent), 30 people who lead public four-year institutions (27percent), 26 people who lead public two-year institutions (23 percent), and 12 people who lead other institutions (10 percent).  

This follows up on Part I of the survey conducted from September 27-October 8, which featured 230 presidents, of which 102 lead private four-year institutions (44 percent), 59 lead public four-year institutions (26 percent), 52 lead public two-year institutions (23 percent), seven lead for-profit institutions (3 percent), five lead private graduate-only institutions (2 percent), three lead private two-year institutions (1 percent), and two lead public less than two-year institutions (0.9 percent).

In Clark and Taylor’s report, presidents were asked to select up to five topics from a list of 19 critical issues. They identified students’ mental health as the most pressing concern, with 73 percent of respondents choosing that topic. Coming in the second year of the pandemic, concerns about how students are coping has come under increasing scrutiny in university circles and even popular media.

The next most common response in the ACE survey was “enrollment numbers for the next academic term” coming in at 63 percent, a slight increase from 59 percent who reported this in the Part I report. The third most chosen issue by college presidents was “mental health of faculty and staff” at 57 percent, which was a 3-point increase from Part I. “Long-term financial viability” came in fourth place, with 43 percent of presidents reporting this as a top-of-mind issue. Other topics front of mind for presidents were “retention of faculty and/or staff” with 35 percent of presidents selecting this issue and “racial equity issues” at 33 percent, an increase of four points from Part I. 

The survey also touched on campus attitudes surrounding COVID-19 safety. The survey found that, “Importantly, most presidents who responded to this survey noted that the vast majority of campus stakeholders have been supportive of COVID-19 mitigation measures.” Presidents were asked if political discourse about the pandemic negatively impacted their institution’s ability to implement COVID-19 mitigation measures. People leading public four-year institutions overwhelmingly agreed that the political climate had an affect on their ability implement safety measures, responding the most at 74 percent, followed next by public two-year institutions (65 percent). Private four-year institutions (58 percent) were least likely to agree this was a problem. 

Presidents were asked further about COVID-19 policies by reporting their level of agreement with this statement: “Federal government requirements related to COVID-19 vaccines for faculty and staff had created tension with my state government.” Twenty-one of presidents answered, “strongly agreed” and 27 percent of presidents “agreed.”  

To ascertain if there was community support for campus COVID-19 mitigation measures, presidents were asked to indicate the level of support their institution received from six stakeholder groups. Seventy-three percent of presidents reported that their governing board was very supportive in the institution’s implementation of COVID-19 prevention measures and 46 percent reported that their faculty and staff had been very supportive. When it came to support from the student body, 88 percent of presidents reported that their students were very supportive or supportive in the implementation of prevention measures. Public four-year presidents (94 percent) and private four-year presidents (93 percent) were more to report support than public two-year institutions presidents (81 percent). 

Community support prompted the starkest contrast between presidents, with presidents at private four-year institutions (84 percent) were the most likely to report some level of support from their local community as it related to their institution’s efforts to implement COVID-19 prevention measures, whereas 23 reported “unsupported” communities. “One president stated, ‘We never make anyone happy (we’re always doing too much or too little), but I think we’re consistent—we follow CDC and state guidelines (and thankfully those are in agreement).’” 

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Maxine Terry

Maxine Terry is a corporate communications specialist with SAGE Publishing. She previously covered judiciary and housing policy as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

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