Grinnell College has collected wellness data from students every three years since 2012. The data collection is part of a national effort, the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment.
The survey asks dozens of questions about student health and mental health as well as behaviors related to alcohol and other drug use. Grinnell students have consistently surpassed the national average survey participation rate of 21 percent. In 2018, Grinnell students’ participation rate was 51.6 percent.
Jen Jacobsen ’95, assistant dean of students and director of wellness and prevention, shares the aggregate Grinnell results with staff and students across campus to help inform programming. She shares safety data with Campus Safety, sense of belonging data with the Office of Intercultural Affairs, alcohol and other drug use data with the Harm Reduction Committee, and sexual health data with the Sexual Health Information Center, a student-run organization. She also uses it for student training, including peer educators who focus on wellness, student leaders, and students who host overnight prospective students.
Data even finds its way into pub quizzes. “We find ways to gamify it,” Jacobsen says.
One piece of the student well-being puzzle that Jacobsen finds particularly fascinating is students’ perceptions of the behavior that’s happening around them. Students tend to assume, for example, that more fellow students are drinking, and drinking more, than they actually are.
“The perception of norms is almost always wrong,” Jacobsen says.
Since 2012 the survey data show a positive trend downward, 10 percent, in both the perception and the reality of the number of drinks students are consuming. Even more importantly, fewer students are self-reporting experiencing blackouts or alcohol-related injuries. Additionally, fewer students report having their sleep or studying disrupted by other students’ alcohol use.
Part of the explanation for this change, Jacobsen says, is the messaging that’s been going on about social norms. For example, the term “sober sex” has been used intentionally by the wellness office. In 2015, 51 percent of Grinnell students thought the typical student wanted to be intoxicated for sexual contact, and in 2018, 24 percent think so.
“Perception is getting closer to reality,” Jacobsen says. “Grinnell students are critical thinkers inside the classroom. Discussing norms and their potential misperceptions is a way to extend this critical thinking outside the classroom to their everyday decision-making.”