Science Summary

Dana Baarsvik / June 1, 2016

A recap of research worth noting.

Diversity and Educational Outcomes
College graduation rates are increasing, and the job market continues to improve for graduates. However, research suggests these societal improvements benefit some groups more than others. As college graduation rates overall have increased in the past decade, graduation rates for black students have not progressed as much as for other student groups. In “Rising Tide II: Do Black Students Benefit as Grad Rates Increase?” the Education Trust presents evidence from a study of 232 institutions, showing that graduation rates for black students improved 4.4 percentage points, compared with 5.6 points for white students. As graduation rates for black students have not shown as much progress, the gap in completion rates between black and white students continues to grow. Furthermore, the study found that one third of the institutions in the study did not improve graduation rates for black students at all, and 39 showed declining graduation rates for black students. The Education Trust argues that institutions with similar demographics have shown divergent results in regards to closing the completion rate gap, proving that the support colleges provide for their students plays a pivotal role in academic success.

In their whitepaper, “Bridging the Employment Gap for Students with Disabilities,” the National Organization on Disability (NOD) describes the problem that employers have in successfully identifying and hiring students with disabilities. With employment rates for graduates with disabilities much lower than other graduating students, NOD argues for increased collaboration between college career services and disability services, presenting a case study from the Rochester Institute of Technology that highlights the benefits of such collaboration.

Social Media and Mental Health
In recent years, social media has received increased attention for its effect on the mental health of young people, especially on young women. In a recent study of 1,787 participants ages 19 to 32, high rates of social media use were found to be significantly associated with increased odds of depression. Another study, “Secret Society 123: Understanding the Language of Self-Harm on Instagram”, explored the exposure to peer non suicidal self-injury (NSSI) images and content through the social media site Instagram. The study authors found NSSI content to be popular on Instagram and often veiled by ambiguous hashtags, making it difficult for users outside the NSSI community to understand, and possible for them to avoid recognition from those outside the subculture. Exposure to peer NSSI images may increase the risks of engaging in these behaviors through normalization, or serve as a trigger for NSSI. Furthermore, the study found that content advisory warnings on Instagram were not reliable; relying on individual social media sites to screen or generate warnings for harmful content is not sufficient for protecting young people from these images.

High Rates of Heavy Drinking Continue to Plague Colleges
Despite colleges efforts to curb high risk drinking on campus over the past decade, alcohol interventions have not produced significant changes in students’ drinking habits. In order to determine the efficacy of interventions to reduce alcohol use and related problems for members of Greek letter organizations, a recent meta-analysis examined 15 studies that reported on 21 interventions, analyzing a total of 6,026 students. Overall, interventions targeting fraternity or sorority members showed limited efficacy in reducing consumption and related problems. However, participants in some interventions reduced quantity consumed on specific occasions, and the frequency of drinking days. Interventions that addressed “alcohol expectancies”, or the positive and negative expectations students have when they drink alcohol, were the most successful among this group. The authors of the study concluded that more robust interventions are needed for use with student members of Greek letter organizations. In “Drinking Like an Adult? Trajectories of Alcohol Use Patterns Before and After College Graduation”, Dr. Amelia Arria examines the concept of “maturing out” of college drinking patterns after graduation. Through a longitudinal study, the researchers were able to observe that high frequency drinking patterns developed during college are predictive of higher drinking frequency for several years post-graduation (OR persist for several years after graduation), and that the concept of “maturing out” of alcohol behaviors applies to decreases in quantity of alcohol consumption, but not frequency.

Mental Health Service Access and Campus Climate Importance
As part of an ongoing study of mental health prevention and early intervention (PEI) program investment within the California public high education system, the RAND Corporation produced a report on how changing the mental health climate on college campuses improves student outcomes. The robust programming on California public college campuses, which used empirically supported strategies, was “designed to accomplish three main things: help people on campus recognize and support students in need of mental health care, combat the stigma of mental illness, and give students tools for dealing with stress and other personal and emotional problems.” The study found that not only were PEI programs associated with a 13 percent increase use of mental health services and a decrease in dropouts, but also that a campus climate is one of the most important factors in a student’s decision to seek mental health services . The researchers found that, on campuses that were perceived to be more supportive of mental health issues, and less stigmatizing, students were over 20 percent more likely to seek treatment and 60 percent more likely to receive that treatment on campus. In fact, authors of the study claimed that “If the culture of every California public college campus was supportive of mental wellness, use of services among students with current mental health symptoms or recent mental health–related academic impairment would be expected to rise by an average of 39%.” The authors of this paper stressed that the majority of students at public colleges were more likely to seek services off campus, which underscore the importance of developing strong relationships with community-based support organizations and health centers.

What is important for the wellbeing of college students?
In the Journal of American College Health, researchers investigated the predictors of wellbeing among college students, developing a scale for wellbeing that includes physical and mental wellness. While the study found that physical activity, tobacco use, depression, and current or previous use of mental health services, were all associated with wellbeing, the strongest predictor was sleep quality. Many college students experience sleep problems, often going to bed very late and sleeping in noisy environments. The authors suggest interventions to promote sleep quality among college student may make the largest gains towards improving wellbeing and health. Potential strategies include ensuring a quiet nighttime environment at university housing, and teaching sleep hygiene and stress management measures during freshman orientation.