From the Director: Making Student Well-Being a Core Concern in Higher Education

By Don Harward, project director, BTtoP; president emeritus, Bates College; senior fellow, AAC&U

The BTtoP Project, in partnership with the S. Engelhard Center and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, has for nearly eleven years offered theoretical, financial, and practical assistance to colleges and universities of all types working to strengthen their campus cultures for learning. These campuses are among the most intentional in addressing an underlying issue higher education now faces—the uncertainty regarding its core purposes and thereby its failure to achieve an integrative vision of educational aims and outcomes. All of the other issues facing higher education—spiraling costs, access, how to adapt new pedagogies, technologies and “delivery systems,” etc.—will be resolved or not depending on how the underlying issue of purpose is addressed. To that end, the Project has encouraged all campus constituents to devote their energies, resources, and attention toward support for the whole learner and opportunities for engagement and purposefulness—intellectual, emotive, behavioral, and civic.

We have supported campus initiatives that have deepened engaged learning opportunities; encouraged student well-being, self-realization, and flourishing; and led the campus to a deeper understanding of what ‘the civic,’ civic learning, and actions entail. And, recognizing the need to seek reliable indices for achieving such objectives, we have worked to provide means for direct assessment of core outcomes and their interrelatedness.

Throughout the earlier years of our work, our research, conference programs, and grant support (including over twenty multiyear demonstration site grants) focused on identifying and assessing engaged learning. The capstone of that work was the publication of Transforming Undergraduate Education: Theory that Compels and Practices that Succeed (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012).

During the same period, the Project began a commitment to deepen and to help realize the civic mission of our colleges and universities. To achieve this objective, the Project committed to publishing a Civic Series of five volumes exploring the connection between the civic and contemporary higher education. The first of those volumes, Civic Provocations, was distributed without charge to 40,000 faculty, administrators, and practitioners in 2012. The next four volumes will appear over the next eighteen months. Supplementing the Civic Series, the Project will provide institutional grants—up to 200—to campuses designing inclusive conversations about their own institutional civic missions.

We are currently designing the means and processes that, as a Project, we will use to support institutions in addressing the psychosocial development, flourishing, and well-being (the choice of language fitting the campus culture) of their students.

Having higher education institutions present, develop, understand, and assess their psychosocial mission will require significant campus support. While appropriately concerned with students who are floundering or suffering, and how a campus culture can use learning opportunities to identify and assist them, we are more focused on an even larger population of students who are not, in the language we have borrowed from the research of Corey Keyes, truly flourishing—and on what campuses could be doing to help all students flourish.

BTtoP cofounder and primary funder Sally Engelhard Pingree is leading our efforts. We have held two small seminars of scholars, presidents, faculty, students, and student affairs professionals to discuss the optional processes and practices that we could meaningfully support. It appears that BTtoP will be one of the few organizations calling for the greater realization of higher education’s psychosocial mission—viewing it as an integral and interdependent aspect of the institution’s core purpose. At a time of multiple demands on campus priorities, it will not be an easy case to make. We will be inviting campuses to share their best ideas regarding what, for their campus and students, the psychosocial mission can mean, and what sustainable plans they have for action—plans that are intentional in involving their students. Our effort will be to support those campus efforts with various levels of grant support.

As we go forward with our work to lift up student well-being as the third “leg” (the first being engaged learning; the second the civic) of BTtoP’s agenda, we ask for your thoughts and suggestions. We need your consideration of many questions: How will any specific language of well-being or flourishing get integrated into the general discourse regarding higher education’s integrated mission? How does student flourishing become understood as essential—and not accidental—to academic learning opportunities? To civic opportunities? And most importantly, how does flourishing apply to the whole student and to all students? How can it be understood as integral to the work of all campus constituencies and not an “add on?”

Thank you in advance for your thoughts and suggestions as we move this important agenda forward.