By Mali Locke, Director, and Glorimar Barrios, Associate, Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy

According to the Thriving Quotient developed by Dr. Laurie Schreiner at Azusa Pacific University, “thriving” students are fully engaged emotionally, socially, and academically in their college experience. Thriving is a two-way street; that is to say, thriving is a relationship between the individual student and his/her/their college environment. Lastly, thriving is malleable, measurable, and changeable with interventions.

Higher education is facing many challenges, including declining enrollment, decreased state funding, and wavering public trust. Reorganizing the college experience around thriving could potentially offer competitive advantage from a marketing perspective, and it can also increase student retention and graduation rates. In other words, a focus on thriving can both improve the college experience for students and improve outcomes in higher education.

There is a shared awareness that the mental health crisis is impacting millions of Americans across all age groups and races. From a philanthropic standpoint, funding to promote thriving in higher education is an innovative and timely approach that has the capacity to make significant and lasting change.

Based on months of research and input from a wide range of experts, the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP) identified the following as barriers to thriving in higher education:

  • Limited knowledge of the science of learning and of well-being;
  • Lack of widespread knowledge of models for thriving in higher education;
  • Lack of mental health and well-being resources for students.

Fortunately, there are a variety of opportunities for philanthropists committed to improving thriving for college students.

Disseminate research on the power of social-emotional learning and well-being

Higher education stakeholders need a one-stop shop where they can access research on how emerging adults learn, how the brain responds to learning, and the impact of the environment on learning. Additionally, constant communication around these topics will ensure that the information is spread widely, and practitioners can adopt new practices when applicable. These opportunities are the first step to making sure the information available is organized and that stakeholders are aware of them.

  • Fund a comprehensive library of the existing research on brain development and learning of adolescents and emerging adults.
  • Increase communications and stakeholder engagement around the research on brain development and learning of adolescents and emerging adults.

Provide access to known practices and models that promote thriving in higher education

Each institution should have access to existing, research-based best practices--but tailor its approach to meet the needs of their student body.

  • Build and share an “open source” library of promising practices.
  • Provide funding to scale known thriving practices, including courses that teach social-emotional competencies, peer-to-peer learning models, and access to mobile apps.
  • Build and share a catalogue of colleges and universities committed to thriving and well-being.
  • Make it possible for thriving colleges and universities to consult with other schools.
  • Fund a network of thriving colleges and universities to codify and share their practices and outcomes.
  • Help colleges and universities develop custom models that cater to their student population.

Help students access resources immediately

  • Fund student mental health and suicide prevention organizations.  
  • Fund startup costs for implementing telemedicine and therapy for partner colleges and universities.

In summary, a multifaceted, multi-year effort is needed to promote student thriving in higher education. To start, information is crucial to the success of transforming the way higher education address student mental health and well-being. Putting best practices, lessons, blueprints, and models available online for all who desire them is the first step. Next, resources – funding, technical assistance, and assessment – will be needed to increase the likelihood thriving practices may be attempted, from small pilots to university wide implementation. Finally, the importance of thriving and the research underpinning learning and development needs to be shared and advocated for, over and over again, with higher education stakeholders. A strategic and coordinated philanthropic effort will make the change needed.