Marcus Hotaling, director of Union College’s Eppler-Wolff Counseling Center and president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, toured campuses this year with his precollege daughter and noticed something interesting. Tour guides, he recalls, “were actively talking about counseling services, letting people know of the services and sessions” available to students.
Colleges and universities haven’t historically touted their mental health care options to prospective students, for many reasons. But experiences like Hotaling’s suggest that’s changing. And new Student Voice survey data indicate that many prospective students are now considering institutions’ mental health care options in choosing where to attend.
The survey, conducted in April and May by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, asked 3,000 current two- and four-year college students about their experiences with stress, mental health and physical wellness. Questions covered colleges’ wellness services, namely mental health, dining, fitness and physical health. One question in particular asked students which of those services mattered most when making the decision to enroll at their college or university.
For students over all, the No. 1 choice was mental health support, with 29 percent selecting it as the top wellness factor in choosing their institution. The second-most important listed service was dining, followed by fitness and physical health, while 28 percent responded that none of these was a top priority in their college decision.
Mental health services were even more important for students who accessed mental health care or took prescribed medication for mental or emotional health care needs prior to attending college. Among this group (n=980), 36 percent say mental health care was the wellness offering that mattered most when selecting a college.
Even among students who did not access mental health care prior to attending college, 25 percent say that mental health was the top wellness offering that informed their college choice. This still puts mental health ahead of dining, fitness and physical health options. (The numbers are similar for students who did and did not take medication for ongoing physical health needs prior to attending college.)
Such findings correspond with trends Jenny Buyens, a Minnesota-based independent college consultant and partner at College Connectors, is seeing in her own work.
“More and more of our families are asking about mental health services as criteria for choosing a college that will support their student,” Buyens says. “And these are students who don’t necessarily have a diagnosis of a mental health issue. Rather, the families are being proactive, knowing of the stresses college can bring on first-year students.”
John McLaughlin, associate vice president and dean of admissions at Hamilton College, adds that “for many years, there was a focus on physical wellness and health. Colleges and universities would feature their athletic and recreational facilities.” Yet in recent years, “we’ve seen more interest and investment in mental wellness.” Both prospective and current students “are more open to talking about mental health, and we have many resources available to support our students in mind and body.”
At Brown University, the undergraduate admissions team collaborates with counseling and psychological services to answer prospective students’ questions about mental health services. Admissions materials and communications to prospective students highlight student services broadly, including those on mental health services.
“There’s a national mental health conversation happening now at every level in higher education,” says Logan Powell, associate provost for enrollment and dean of undergraduate admission at Brown.
Other notable findings on this issue from the Student Voice survey:
- Mental health care services informed college choice for relatively more women (n=1,996) than men (n=747) in the survey, with 33 percent of women saying that mental health options mattered most to them, compared to 23 percent of men.
- Relatively more LGBTQIA+ students (n=829) than straight students say mental health care services mattered most to them in terms of wellness when choosing a college, at 35 percent versus 26 percent, respectively.
- Some 36 percent of two-year college students (n=599) cite mental health care as the priority wellness service in deciding where to attend, compared to 27 percent of four-year college students.
- About the same share of students at public institutions and at private, nonprofit institutions valued mental health care options most when deciding where to attend, as did about the same share of students taking their all their classes online, all their classes in person or a mix of both. Same for students with financial aid and no financial aid, and for students from both public and private high schools.
Buyens and Hotaling both say that other college or university characteristics, such as reputation, affordability and location, generally matter more to students than anything wellness-related when choosing where to apply to college. But mental health care services can and do matter when students—and, in many cases, their parents—are ultimately deciding where to enroll between two or three final institutions.
Hotaling says, “This is when the counseling center comes into play, and we tend to get many calls from parents.” Parents, even more than students, want to know what services are available, whether there are session limits, details on medication management and more, he continues.
Whether students or parents are driving the conversation, Hotaling hopes these discussions are happening widely. “You do not want to arrive on campus without knowing how to access care or to be surprised by session limits.” (While Union doesn’t cap student counseling visits, Hotaling says that elsewhere, annual per-students campus counseling is commonly capped at between five and eight visits.)
The High School Factor
David Walden, director of the counseling center and lecturer in psychology at Hamilton College (he is also on the counseling center directors’ association’s board), says that beyond parents and individual students, high schools are promoting college mental health awareness.
During a recent talk at a high school in New York, for instance, he says, “They asked me to give the graduating class an overview of how to navigate mental health resources in college, and some tips about caring for themselves. Some wisdom for the road, if you will.” To Walden, this reflected “a growing intentionality around being thoughtful about mental health and what kinds of supports students can utilize in college to care for themselves.”
Josh Godinez, a high school counselor and immediate past president of the California Association of School Counselors, agrees that mental health “is absolutely at the forefront of the student educational experience. Now more than ever, we see an openness to students comfortable with expressing their feelings.”
Walden says that just as conversations about mental health have become broader and more commonplace over time, prospective students’ interest in mental health goes beyond what campus counseling services alone can offer.
“This is about what the whole college experience can offer students, about what it means to be a human being in the world,” he continues. “Students—and maybe they aren’t able to fully articulate it yet—are looking for institutions to provide guidance on the art of living. About how to connect with themselves and others. That goes well beyond specific clinical offerings and into an institution’s broad-based approach to well-being and how everyone, from counselors to staff to professors, helps them learn about how to be in the world in sustainable ways. And how those adults embody that themselves and share that knowledge and wisdom.”