Last August, as Kent State University students were busy reconnecting with friends and settling into another year of college, professors John Gunstad and Karin Coifman were launching a research initiative that could improve their wellbeing and that of the thousands of students who come after them. The new Student Life Study is the largest and most ambitious investigation into the health and wellbeing of college students ever conducted. It will collect a high-dimensional data set on a group of 10,000 students and follow them throughout their lifetimes, providing real-time data on student mental and physical health. Gunstad and Coifman believe a study of this magnitude will eventually identify best-practice interventions, provide immediate access to health and wellness resources, re-structure university programming and decision-making, and even predict outcomes after graduation. 

“Our goal is to create a comprehensive understanding of what it’s like to be a modern-day college student in order to help them live happier and healthier lives,” said Dr. Gunstad. 

Longitudinal, population-scale research projects, like the Harvard Study of Adult Development, can provide a treasure trove of data as they follow individuals over the course of their lifetimes. But no studies of this scope and intensity have ever focused on college students. Dr. Karin Coifman is a clinical psychologist whose research focuses on following people over extended periods of time, particularly through stages of stress—including normative, developmental stressors like the transition into college. Dr. John Gunstad is a clinical neurologist interested in tracking changes in the brain over the course of a lifetime. Their combined expertise is now fully dedicated to helping improve the overall wellbeing of college students by looking at all the contributing factors – including mental and physical health, social belonging, academic and career success and equity and inclusion. 

An unmet need

The Student Life Study’s abstract states that “Current students represent a unique generation, the first raised entirely within the broader context of social media. Presently, U.S. colleges and universities do not have adequate resources to address this increased demand and existing surveillance and broad-scope interventional tools are limited. The Kent State Student Life Study (SLS) is designed to investigate complex and dynamical developmental shifts in psychological health and functioning in this generation of college students.” By understanding the unique social, cultural, and psychological challenges faced by these students, Dr. Coifman and Dr. Gunstad believe that universities can better accommodate their needs and support their development. 

A population-scale study of this magnitude and with this intensity of measurement has never been conducted on college students.

As Dr. Coifman explains, “college is a developmental period when the bad habits that drive many health concerns later in life are formed. There's a shift that happens when kids leave home and come onto the college campus. They come with their history. They come with their risk. They come with their experiences and certainly patterns of behavior. But those things dynamically shift during the college years, and we don't yet understand exactly how that occurs—which means we're not very good at intervening.” 

Both Dr. Gunstad and Dr. Coifman speak passionately about the research methodology and the rigor of the study. The Student Life Study aims to gather data on a sample of 10,000 college students—not only while they are on campus, but after graduation and throughout their lives. The research methods range from surveys and video responses to physical health assessments, the combination of which is itself precedent setting. The model of the study involves both tracking behaviors and testing methods of intervention, discovering what works in real time. When something works, the researchers will make it available without delay—an intervention found to be effective will be available to all students and continuously refined. 

The process of data collection is equally rigorous, agile and ever evolving. “To capture developmental processes, you have to use a dynamic model for research,” Dr. Coifman says. “It's often called a measurement burst framework, where you do these fits of intense measurement, and then you wait, and then you do them again, and then you wait and repeat. We're doing that within a platform that's really comfortable for this population. We rely on a lot of remote assessment, such as surveys delivered through the smartphone, as well as a process called ecological momentary assessment, a technique that allows researchers to observe behaviors and experiences in real time.”

In the Student Life Study, this assessment takes place during one week of each semester, when students will report their behaviors and experiences 5 times a day for a period of 7 days. “We’ve paired these periods of ecological momentary assessment with passive biosensing,” Dr. Coifman explains. This means hardware and software integration, pairing survey data with health data collected by a Garmin device such as a Fitbit or Apple watch. 

The study has “enormous scientific potential,” Dr. Coifman explains, in part due to the scope and methods of data collection. A population-scale study of this magnitude and with this intensity of measurement has never been conducted on college students. It allows the researchers to make better, more nuanced scientific inferences. “There are lots of population-scale studies following individuals over the course of their lifetimes, but the intensity of measurement is gathering data maybe once or twice a year. We are doing continuous, intensive sampling, and we’re also collecting biological data that other samples haven’t.” 

Phase 1 of the study began last fall and involves measuring the health, social behavior and academic performance of 10,000 college students during their time on campus. Phase 2 will follow these same students after graduation, studying how their physical health, mental and emotional wellbeing, social and professional lives play out over the course of their lifetimes. The researchers will use information gathered in both phases to identify predictors of successful outcomes, develop effective interventions for issues like substance abuse or mental health concerns, and understand how students’ college years affect the rest of their lives. 

The ultimate goal of the Student Life Study is to work with university administrators and decision-makers at Kent State and beyond to implement resources and best practices based on the findings of the study.

“We’re trying to capture all domains of operations,” Dr. Coifman says. “We are, of course, interested in psychological states, but we’re also interested in basic biological functions. We want to know how people are sleeping, how they're eating, how they're moving; what their social networks look like and how they experience social connection.” Additionally, the researchers will collect data on difficult experiences in students’ lives—as well as how they think about those experiences, and how different ways of thinking about difficult experiences affect life outcomes. At the end of every semester, students complete a survey detailing the primary stressors they encountered, as well as completing a video prompt where they discuss those sources of stress. They use the same method to record positive experiences and achievements. The video offers a platform for narrative response and, importantly, a window into the way students think. 

“Often what people say is much less useful for predicting outcomes than how they say it,” Dr. Coifman explains, adding that “subtle things, like how people use words or how the syntax moves in their phrasing” can help researchers glean qualitative information about how they are processing positive or negative events and emotions. Beneath the content of what students say, the psychology of how they feel about what they are saying opens another world of interpretation. 

With this ambitious undertaking comes a tremendous potential for meaningful change. The ultimate goal of the study is to work with university administrators and decision-makers at Kent State and beyond to implement resources and best practices based on the findings of the study. Dr. Gunstad emphasizes that helping universities reallocate their resources to better serve students in an important benefit. “Universities have limited funds for programming to help students succeed,” he says, noting that much of that funding is misallocated to interventions whose efficacy is unproven. “If we can help universities be smart about how they use those funds, we can create better outcomes for students.”

The Student Life Study is funded by a competitive “Game Changer” award sponsored by the Division of Research and Economic Development at Kent State University, which provides internal pilot funds to research projects at the university. When Phase 1 launched in August of 2023, the Student Life Study had amassed around $450,000 in funding to cover the first two years of the study. Dr. Coifman and Dr. Gunstad are grateful for the university’s investment into the program, and they agree that Kent State is the ideal setting for an initiative of this size, scope and potential outcome. 

With nearly 35,000 students across 8 campuses, the university’s geographic spread includes both rural and urban campuses in Ohio. Additionally, more than a third of Kent State students are first-generation college students, and a longitudinal study could have meaningful implications for that population of students. “These are individuals who are the first in their families to make their way into college,” Dr. Gunstad says. “Being able to capture information on that group is critically valuable to their development, and also valuable to us as a country and a society.” 

Dr. Gunstad also points out that past longitudinal and life course studies have typically looked at populations on the east and west coasts. Kent State’s midwestern location means that the study will fill in what past research has missed: “flyover country,” as Dr. Gunstad affectionately puts it. 

Additionally, Dr. Coifman emphasizes institutional support as a crucial element to the study’s success. “The potential of the study is in the commitment of this institution to this project. We are reaping the tremendous benefit of many institutional resources. I suspect that lots of institutions are very concerned with the fact that it's incredibly hard to meet the needs of students today, and they simply have inadequate funding available to do it. The gap between the need and the resources is just getting wider and wider,” she says. Institutional investment into the Student Life Study may eventually mean that those limited resources can be reallocated to better serve students at colleges and universities across the country.

To learn more about the Kent State University Student Life Study, visit