Columbia University Life discussed the 2020 Columbia Student Well-Being Survey. Although the survey found most students are thriving, challenges to community, mental health, and sexual respect continue, especially for transgender and non-binary students.

On October 28, University Life presented their findings from the 2020 Columbia Student Well-Being survey and the initiatives implemented in response to the data. With a 31% response rate, University Life surveyed 9,000 students across Columbia’s 16 schools. The survey covered three areas: campus community, overall well-being and mental health, and sexual respect and gender-based misconduct. 

Overall, the survey found that while most students were flourishing (a measure of self-perceived success and optimism), fewer showed resilience against adversity. The survey closed mid-March 2020, one week after the university shut down due to the pandemic. The data likely reflects some of the turmoil caused by the pandemic, but cannot speak to the challenges the student body faces today. However, lower scores for resilience indicate that the adversity of the past 18 months may have caused significant harm to students’ well-being. In addition, the survey found that transgender and non-binary students faced greater adversity across nearly all categories measured.

Nearly two-thirds of participants reported a sense of belonging at Columbia, with a slightly smaller majority indicating that they felt valued as an individual at the school. Responses differed slightly across racial and ethnic lines, but plummeted for transgender and non-binary students; less than half reported feelings like they belonged or were valued. 

Students reported that they interacted with those of different political beliefs the least often of all dimensions of difference surveyed, including racial, gender, and religious identity. This manifested itself in the classroom, where although the vast majority of students felt able to listen to differing beliefs, fewer felt capable of sharing their own. 

Although the survey was taken pre-pandemic, much of the programming aimed at community building responded to post-pandemic challenges. Welcome Home Columbia, a series of events held at the start of the fall semester, focused on welcoming both a much larger group of students new-to-campus, as first and second years alike adjusted to the community. The events included Columbia Reflects, which gave space for students to reflect on the pandemic and ongoing racial injustice of the past 18 months. 

Sources of stress varied across gender racial lines. Transgender and non-binary students experienced higher levels of stress across all categories, with stress due to mental health jumping from 44.4% in the overall survey to 73.7%.

The greatest sources of stress reported were future employment, current financial situation, and national/world events. However, sources of stress varied significantly across racial and gender lines, with transgender and non-binary students reporting higher stress levels across all categories. 

Despite finances and employment serving as the greatest stressors for the Columbia community, the survey did not explore the impact of paying tuition and university expenses. The survey asked students if they were receiving financial aid, were not receiving aid but felt they needed it, or were not receiving aid and did not need it; students on financial aid but still struggling to pay were sidestepped entirely. Similarly, students did not have an option to report difficulties paying tuition under the following question on paying for basic necessities. The impact of financial aid varies widely across schools, taking on entirely different meanings for, say, law students as opposed to undergraduates. Likewise, the question did not differentiate between grants and loans, which have drastically different impacts on students’ finances. The question on basic necessities also did not include childcare, a key demand by Student Workers of Columbia. 

However, Joseph Defraine Greenwell, Vice President for Student Affairs at University Life, did highlight several initiatives that address stressors in students’ lives. These include the food pantry at Columbia and the $1.4 billion fundraising campaign to increase financial aid across schools. Greenwell also mentioned the free iGrad financial planning app, and the Columbia career coaches network through the alumni association. 

The survey screened students for alcohol use and mental health conditions. The screenings are designed to over-report; they indicate only that the student is at risk. The vast majority of students scored in the low-risk category for alcohol use. A quarter of those surveyed had a professionally diagnosed mental health condition, with 70% of those students currently in treatment. Transgender and non-binary students reported scored significantly higher for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Claude Mellins, Principal Investigator for the survey, contextualized the findings against wider trends of mental health conditions increasing dramatically across the country. Greenwell highlighted University Life programming such as Wellness Days, study breaks, and support in nutrition, time management, stress, and religion. 

The number of individuals who experienced gender-based misconduct prior to coming to Columbia increased from 26% in 2018 to 31% in 2020. These populations are at heightened risk of experiencing gender-based misconduct again and are in need of increased support. Women and transgender and non-binary students experienced gender-based misconduct at higher rates.

While at Columbia, 28% of students surveyed experienced sexual harassment, 4% experienced stalking, and 6% experienced sexual assault. However, other campus surveys report higher numbers. In the 2019 AAU Campus Climate Survey, students experiencing sexual harassment jumped to 42%, and sexual assault jumped to 13%. Likewise, the 2016 Sexual Assault Survey reported 22% of students experienced sexual assault while on campus. The survey found that transgender and non-binary students experienced sexual assault at more than double the overall rates while at the school.

Greenwell described the university’s efforts at preventing sexual assault through education programs aimed at first-years, such as a Sexual Assault Prevention tutorial and the Community Citizenship Initiative. Mellins also mentioned faculty trainings around gender-based misconduct. The Sexual Respect website centralizes resources and campus policies. However, it is not clear that existing resources are effective or trusted by students. Far fewer students reporting utilizing campus resources, such as Sexual Violence Response or the Title IX Coordinator, than reported experiencing gender-based misconduct.

Greenwell did not mention the university’s process once gender-based misconduct occurs. However, the survey did find that 14% of perpetrators of sexual assault were faculty members. The data comes amidst graduate student reports hostile work environments with few protections from harassment at the hands of supervisors. The university continues to refuse the demands of the GWC-UAW for neutral third-party arbitration in harassment and discrimination cases. Several participants in the meeting asked about the significance of the survey for the graduate student’s demands, but the office was unwilling to extend their policy recommendations beyond education.

Author’s note: Bwog asked Columbia to clarify the financial aid question’s applicability considering it limited student response options and did not vary across Columbia’s 16 schools. Bwog also asked questions to elaborate on the efforts being taken by Columbia to address the higher rates of sexual assault on transgender and non-binary students, the lack of childcare as a listed basic necessity, and the discrepancy between the number of people who report gender-based misconduct compared to the amount who utilize campus resources for gender-based misconduct. This article will be updated to reflect any response Bwog receives to these questions when Columbia communicates them to us.

Update on November 8 at 10:11 pm:

Bwog received the following statement from a Columbia University spokesperson:

More than 9,000 students took the 2020 Student Well-Being Survey; overall we believe we gained valid insight into students’ general experiences and well-being. The Report focuses on aggregate, University-wide data, trends. We also collect data at the school and campus levels to inform planning and decision making across the University.

In designing the survey, we worked carefully to strike a balance between ensuring that the length of the survey was manageable for student respondents, and our goal of gathering meaningful data across three wide-ranging focus areas: 1) perceptions of connection and belonging within the community, 2) mental health and well-being, 3) sexual respect and gender-based misconduct.

There are myriad questions that can be asked of students, some of which you touch on. We will take these questions into consideration in future survey design processes.

Finally, we know from national data — and our own data — that students who identify as transgender and gender non-binary are often at higher risk of experiencing gender-based misconduct, including sexual assault. Columbia is not an exception.  Columbia has made important efforts to educate our community about the importance of sexual respect through the Community Citizenship Initiative (which includes the Sexual Respect Initiative); we have also worked to ensure that students are aware of the resources available to them. We also know more can and must be done, and welcome the opportunity to stay in dialogue with Bwog as this work advances.

squares that are colored via Columbia University