Are college students at the breaking point? Kathleen deLaski, the president of the deLaski Family Foundation and the founder of Education Design Lab and EdFuel, asks that question. DeLaski, who served on the George Mason University Board of Visitors from 2005 through 2013, writes about her father’s search for meaning and how those themes have been surprisingly resonant on a large university campus.

By Kathleen deLaski 

My father spent his life openly searching for meaning. He served as deacon of our Presbyterian Church, followed an Indian guru through the ’80s and ’90s, and channeled with seers to get in touch with his past lives. The bookshelves of my childhood held the mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Edgar Cayce’s prophecies.

It was not your average household.

When Dad told me he wanted to give George Mason University $10 million to establish a center to spread the study and practice of “finding yourself,” it’s safe to say I was a little concerned.

By this time, in 2008, I had been appointed by Virginia’s governor to George Mason’s Board of Visitors and was chair of the Academic Affairs committee. I felt a sense of responsibility to make sure any gift aligned with the university’s academic agenda.

Turns out, Dad was way ahead of his time with his vision to connect well-being to universities.

In the United States today, college students have an alarmingly low view of their own well-being, which, given the campus press about sexual assault, shootings, student debt and “failure to launch,” maybe shouldn’t be a surprise.

Only 13 percent of college students report having a positive sense of well-being, according to Gallup surveys, significantly lower than high-schoolers or any other age group tracked. And it is why I wish my parents, both deceased, could see the result of the gift.

Mason used the grant to create programs and an academic minor, living-learning communities, research and coaching. Students have called the life-examining classes “life-changing.”

The programs send the message the university cares about them. In fact, Mason is the first university to put what the field now calls “well-being” at the center of its strategic plan.

Well-being is not just physical wellness; it’s for the soul. Physical well-being is one of five components Gallup tracks every day around the world. The others are social, financial, community and purpose.

There is significant research on how to mitigate a low sense of well-being.

At the college level, it’s all about helping students and faculty to be engaged, hopeful and to thrive. These are actually predictors of success in life and work.

Gallup tracks six activities on college campuses that correlate highly to engagement. They include having one caring mentor, a long-term internship or experiential learning project, and being deeply involved in a few extra-curricular activities, rather than skimming the surface with many.

When I heard Gallup present this at Mason, I initially worried the data raised a red flag about online learning. Isn’t the growing proportion of online learning making students less personally engaged by definition?

Surprisingly, I was wrong. The university with the best marks from students on mentorship is the oldest distance university in the country, Western Governors University. Students have one mentor, full on, throughout their studies. They don’t physically meet until they cross the stage at graduation.

This data is a design challenge to universities, as well as my organization, The Education Design Lab.

Apparently “engagement” is a significantly more important predictor of workforce success than a student’s GPA.

Where are the students who benefit most from a school optimized for “well-being?”

At large, under-funded state universities and community colleges.

Mason is one of those schools, with one-third of freshmen being the first in their families to earn a four-year degree and 50 percent of students transferring from the community college system.

With 25,000 Mason students, faculty and alumni participating in well-being activities last year, Nance Lucas, director of the university’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, sees an unmistakable yearning on campus to connect our lives to purpose and meaning. Much like Dad.

So, I applaud Mason’s embrace of my father’s idea and Gallup’s commitment to build a cohort of Well-Being Universities around the country.

Perhaps this movement will move the needle in the workplace as well, where only 30 percent of Americans report feeling engaged. That matters because engagement is so closely tied to productivity, health-care costs and, to come full circle, well-being.

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