Measuring Wellbeing Among College Students
Data from different sources can add to the whole picture
As agents of socialization, colleges and universities serve important roles for young people to construct their identity and find community in addition to acquiring knowledge and skills. Students’ wellbeing is directly related to their learning, performance, development, and flourishing on campus. For these reasons, institutions are prioritizing the wellbeing of all students, and central to their efforts is the need to develop robust systems to measure, evaluate, and monitor wellbeing. Quality measurement systems help identify the physical, mental, and social needs of students, the determinants of wellbeing, and the development of targeted programming and intervention to improve the wellbeing of students.
Over the years, universities or organizations across the United States and globally have developed various metrics to measure the wellbeing of students and young adults, resulting in the creation of a number of quality measurement systems or scales. This article examines a number of these including the Gallup Alumni Survey, the Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment, The Student Flourishing Initiative at University of Virginia, The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania’s PERMA Profiler, and the Flourishing Scale (FS) by Diener, Wirtz, Tov, Kim-Prieto, Choi, Oishi, and Biswas-Diener. The comparison looks at: 1) What criteria does each of the assessment system include; 2) What are the similarities and differences across different assessment systems; 3) Under what context should we use each metric and why; 4) What are some of the practical problems that arise when applying the metrics to different schools or different populations of students, and how can we improve existing metrics to make them more efficient and useful; and 5) How can school administrators, university counseling services, and other relevant departments use the results from the wellbeing survey to design programs and interventions to improve the wellbeing of all students, particularly those with minoritized identities.
Analyzing the different wellbeing metrics allows us to understand the generalizability and specificity of different measurements; to provide insights into what contexts each of them can be applied to, what caution might be needed in using them, and what programming or interventions can be incorporated as a follow-up to measurement.
Wellbeing Measurements Overview
The Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment has been developed to assess undergraduates’ wellbeing over time, and to provide input for programming staff to develop practices and interventions to improve wellbeing. The assessment tool has been used in conjunction with the newly launched “Thrive” initiative to ensure that the identification of the problems is followed by proper intervention. Eight dimensions of human flourishing are identified, including physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, occupational, financial, and environmental. The Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment is designed based on the “engine model” of wellbeing, which primarily consists of two parts: the pathways and the outcome. Pathways refer to the conditions for achieving wellbeing, including personal traits, values, knowledge, resources, etc. Outcomes are the display of wellbeing in the state of emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. The understanding into pathways is helpful for policy design and programming to provide resources and create the conditions conducive to wellbeing. It should be noted, however, that the goal for wellbeing measurement is to measure the outcomes rather than the pathways, since the same outcomes can be achieved through different pathways.
The Student Flourishing Initiative at the University of Virginia (UVA) is a cross-institutional initiative that focuses on five dimensions of wellbeing, namely foundations, awareness, connection, wisdom, and integration. The qualities corresponding to each dimension include the following: for foundations: flourishing, transformation, and resilience; for awareness: focus, emotions, and mindfulness; for connection: interdependence, compassion, and diversity; for wisdom: identity, values and aesthetics; and for integration: courage and performance. Six keys to student flourishing were also identified, including equity (security, justice, and belonging); physical health (nourishment, movement, and rest); awareness (attention, self-awareness, and emotional balance); connection (social connection, nature connection, and transcendent connection); wisdom (knowledge, insights, and appreciation); and resilience (adaptability, perseverance, and courage).
Both the Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment and the Student Flourishing Initiative at UVA reflect a holistic portrayal of the current status and the potential for wellbeing. The aspects of wellbeing that are at play are the physical, mental, emotional, social, academical, vocational, and environmental, which are more robust than the wellbeing metrics that are restricted to physical and emotional health. The vocational and environmental aspects are not commonly covered by the other wellbeing metrics. The idea of flourishing and thriving implies a temporal dimension that is meaningful and constructive. Instead of being concerned about wellbeing at a fixed time point, it focuses on lifelong flourishing that extends beyond college.
In comparison to the Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment that puts emphasis on its coordination with the programming team to design recreational activities to help enhance the senses of engagement and belonging of college students, the UVA tool focused on developing curricular solutions to address the needs of students and help them navigate a meaningful campus life. As part of the initiative, the course The Art and Science of Human Flourishing is offered to freshman students across three universities including the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Pennsylvania State University.
The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard is designed and intended for adults over age 18, and is applicable to workplace, medical, educational, and governmental settings. It identifies five primary domains of flourishing including happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships, which aligns closely with the UVA flourishing measurement. In particular, the inclusion of “character and virtue” aligns closely with the aspect of “awareness” and “wisdom” from the UVA flourishing measurement.
The Gallup Alumni Survey (formerly the Gallup-Purdue Index) was first released in 2014 and is aimed at understanding what factors in college influence wellbeing long after college. It conceptualizes after college wellbeing as “great jobs, great lives,” and measures this on five dimensions including purpose, social, community, financial, and physical wellbeing. What is unique about this index is the incorporation of an organizational and human capital lens, and its stress on the professional aspect of student experience including experiential learning and internship experience. The mission is to prepare students for a path towards a meaningful career or an advanced degree. To help enhance the mentorship experience of students on campus, it values the sustainable and meaningful relationship between faculty and students, graduate students and undergraduates, senior students and junior students, both within and outside of classroom.
UPenn’s PERMA Profiler is designed to assist adults across countries to monitor their wellbeing across multiple psychosocial domains, and to help measure and document levels and changes in wellbeing at individual, community, and national levels. The six domains of wellbeing covered include positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishment, and health. The first domain, positive emotion, focuses mostly on hedonic wellbeing, which is to maximize pleasant experiences and minimize negative experiences. Meaning and accomplishment relate to eudaimonic wellbeing, which is oriented towards “growth, authenticity, meaning and excellence” (Huta and Waterman 2014: 1448). The metrics are helpful in providing implications for evidence-based positive psychology coaching and intervention. The scale is valuable in that in its design, it looks for cross-national and cross-time validity. It has the flexibility to be adapted and applied to working settings or among the adolescent sample. However, it has also been criticized for overly focusing on the individual, overlooking physical health, and overlooking cultural strengths (Biswas-Diener, Linley, Govindji, and Woolston, 2011).
The Flourishing Scale is designed to measure social–psychological prosperity and self-perceived success, and to complement existing measures of subjective well-being. Aspects of prosperity encompass purpose, relationships, engagement, happiness, accomplishment, self-esteem, optimism, and respect. What is unique about this scale is the inclusion of multiple introspective aspects of flourishing. Similar to the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, in addition to the emphasis of social relationships and engagement, which are the external aspects of flourishing, it also values accomplishment, self-esteem, optimism, and respect. The component optimism is not covered in either the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard or the Student Flourishing Initiative at UVA.
In terms of the focal population, the Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment, the Student Flourishing Initiative at UVA, and the Gallup Alumni Survey are primarily for college students (or alumni), whereas the other measurements are used for a broader population. The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard is intended for adults over age 18, and is applicable in the workplace, medical, educational, and governmental settings. The Flourishing Scale is also applicable to broader populations. The UPenn’s PERMA Profiler is applicable to all adults rather than just college students, although various variations have been developed to adapt to other populations. The EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Well-being is adapted from the original PERMA Profiler to apply to adolescents. The Workplace PERMA Profiler is adapted to work settings.
Regarding the content of the wellbeing metrics, the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, UPenn’s PERMA Profiler, the EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Well-being, and the Flourishing Scale cover happiness, satisfaction, or positive emotions, which are manifestations of hedonic wellbeing that focus on the affective and cognitive evaluation of the quality of life (Diener et al., 2002). Most of the metrics include multiple value- or virtue-oriented components related to eudaimonic wellbeing (Heintzelman, 2018; Ryan and Deci, 2001), which accounts for aspects of self-development, growth, and optimal functioning such as resilience, courage, awareness, and optimism, although the exact operationalization might vary. For example, the EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Well-being and the Flourishing Scale include optimism; UPenn’s PERMA Profiler and the Flourishing Scale include accomplishment; the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, UPenn’s PERMA Profile and the Flourishing Scale include meaning or purpose. The inclusion of eudaimonic wellbeing rather than merely hedonic wellbeing reflects an orientation towards long-term fulfillment and flourishing rather than short-term gratification. All metrics account for social relationships, belonging, and engagement as essential components, which are positively associated with both hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing. The Gallup Alumni Survey, the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, and UPenn’s PERMA Profiler also include health.
In terms of implementation, the Wake Forest Wellbeing Assessment, The Gallup Alumni index, The Student Flourishing Initiative at UVA, UPenn’s PERMA Profiler and the Flourishing Scale are either developed as a cross-institutional collaboration, or have been tested on cross-institutional or cross-country populations. Therefore, the development of the metrics requires negotiation between generalizability and specificity for the metrics to be inclusive towards diverse student populations, but also nuanced enough to capture the contextual characteristics of different institutions across the country. All metrics discussed here value evidence-based intervention and programming followed by the collection of wellbeing data, revealing a pragmatic approach to policy design that improves the experiences of students on and off campus, and throughout college and beyond.
Diverse measures allow for greater integrity and can better inform intervention strategies.
While the existence of numerous wellness measures in college mental health may add a level of complexity, experts believe the use of multiple measures for wellbeing has some key advantages, from the feasibility of survey design and implementation, to the interdependence of multiple wellness elements, to broadening of definitions—such as that of flourishing to extend beyond mental health.
Dr. Sarah Ketchen Lipson is an associate professor in the Department of Health Law Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health and principal investigator of the Healthy Minds Network, a national research organization that surveys college students on several dimensions of mental health and wellbeing.
“I think it's just a reality that there's going to be different measures of wellbeing being used, and measures are different in some important ways, whether they're assessing different dimensions of flourishing or of different lengths.”
The wellbeing frameworks discussed here acknowledge the complexity of the state of wellbeing, and therefore all proposed multi-dimensional models to properly capture the different components of it (Forgeard et al., 2011; Huppert & So, 2013; Friedman & Kern, 2014). The aspects of wellbeing related to the physical, mental, emotional, social, mental, academical, vocational, and environmental aspects are more robust than the wellbeing metrics that are restricted to physical and emotional health. Lipson says the intersectionality of the wellbeing domains is a factor favoring the more robust models.
“When you consider a wellness wheel, if one spoke of the wheel is out—for example, if you have a broken spoke around your financial situation—the wheel is not going to turn as effectively if one of these key domains is out of shape,” Lipson said. “This interdependence is important to keep top of mind as schools make efforts to create conditions that benefit intersecting dimensions of wellbeing to improve the outcome of an intervention.”
Additionally, Dr. Lipson notes the practical benefits of measuring flourishing along a continuum rather than simply focusing on mental health: “I think that measures of flourishing align with a public health or prevention approach, rather than just a treatment and crisis response. The reason behind focusing on flourishing is it acknowledges that a school is thinking about mental health along a continuum, so it’s not just the absence of problems, but the presence of students thriving and flourishing that is the goal.”
Given the existence of multiple, diverse wellbeing measurements, Lipson advises finding ways to compare and contrast across measurements, and to test them across diverse student populations.
“A priority for research is to assess measures of flourishing and wellbeing in diverse student populations.”
It is also suggested that future research should make more predictive rather than purely descriptive analysis and explore the stability of the measures over time and across cultures and the sensitivity to change (Oishi & Schimmack, 2010). As indicated by the design of the wellbeing and flourishing measurements, those measurements are concerned about lifelong outcomes rather than merely the immediate wellbeing of current students on campus. Therefore, despite how comprehensive and inclusive they are, they would need to be constantly updated to offer an accurate reading. Depending on the social and cultural contexts, different components of the measurement might not have different weightings. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when social distancing protocols were enforced and students experienced restrictions on social activities, the needs for meaningful connections rose up as a priority. The pandemic also enhanced the priority for physical health among various dimensions of wellbeing.
When it comes to the development and refinement of wellbeing metrics in practice, there is a negotiation between the complexity and inclusivity versus the concision of the scales. On one hand, to accurately capture different emotional, mental, and psychosocial states requires more fine-grained instruments for each domain of wellbeing. Dr. Lipson suggests the inclusion of more domains also helps invite more stakeholders such as financial services, residence life, and career services to play an active role in supporting the wellbeing of students. On the other hand, higher specificities of the metrics may compromise brevity (which is important in survey research) and generalizability.
This analysis underscores the nuances that exist in instruments that measure wellbeing as opposed to the more standardized measures used for clinical conditions. Though this dynamic might make the process more multi-layered, the various tools, including the ones listed here, help us to understand the multi-dimensional nature of a person’s overall wellbeing. Just as there are numerous measurement tools, there are multiple interventions and strategies that need to be applied when taking a public health approach to wellbeing.
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