5 Evidence-Based Tips for Maximizing Prevention Efforts with Incoming Students

As the 2015-16 school year gets underway, we, as campus prevention professionals, are all a year further from our own college experience. Do you remember what coming to campus was like⎯the emotions (excitement, anxiety, uncertainty), the events (moving in, saying goodbye, orientation), the information we got about health, wellness, and safety?

The messages we provide new students in their first few days about alcohol, dating, intimate relationships, and looking out for others are critically important. Here are some suggestions and recommendations as you look ahead at this new year of opportunity.

Tip #1. Actively question assumptions. The “ideal college experience” is as diverse as our student body. Having prevention programs that appeal to students’ interests is important, but try to avoid “we know you’re going to do this so just be safe” messages. These expressions reinforce problematic and inaccurate stereotypes that partying hard and hooking up are quintessential student experiences. At best, this runs the risk of missing the mark for many students. At worst, this can disenfranchise our most healthy, respectful, and responsible students. Find ways to truly understand students’ values and what they want to get out of their college experience, and use this as a springboard for highlighting synergies with our prevention messages.

Tip #2. Focus on the positive. Our AlcoholEdu data gathered from over 600,000 incoming students suggest that most new students fall into the categories of non-drinker or abstainer (i.e., they have not consumed any alcohol in the past 2 weeks or the past year, respectively), even when we survey them half way through the fall semester.  Similarly, we know from Haven survey data from more than 600,000 students that the vast majority have overwhelmingly healthy attitudes and behaviors when it comes to relationships and topics related to sexual assault. This raises an important question: is our goal to prevent unhealthy behaviors or promote positive behaviors? By focusing on the latter—albeit not exclusively—we deliver messages that align and resonate with many more students than focusing on how to avoid negative experiences. In turn, the healthy student majority can be engaged as agents of change by modeling healthy behaviors and creating a sense of responsibility and accountability among their peers.

Tip #3. Promote a culture of caring. The first person a sexual assault survivor tells about their experience has a profound impact on their healing process and future disclosures. Our research from Campus Climate surveys administered on 65 campuses to over 14,000 students shows that when survivors disclose their experience, they most often turn to close friends. This underscores the importance of fostering a peer culture that is supportive, non-judgmental, and well equipped to offer resources to survivors. That said, over 25% of survivors tell no one about their experience (see Figure 1.) and cite a variety of reasons: they felt it was a private matter, they were ashamed/embarrassed, or they didn’t think what happened was serious. As administrators and prevention professionals, our job is to help create an institutional culture where students recognize their right to be treated with respect and feel that they have the resources, tools, and support to come forward and seek assistance if needed.

Figure 1. Student Reporting of Sexual Assault Incidences

for blog dataTip #4. Treat them like adults. EverFi’s survey research has shown that incoming first-year college students who considered themselves to be more adult-like before starting college drank more responsibly once they were on campus. By making it clear that students arriving on your campus are seen as mature, responsible adults, you may be more likely to inspire this behavior. This message cannot stand alone, but instead should be delivered in the context of messaging that underscores the college’s standards and expectations, rein¬forces students’ commitment to their educational goals, introduces them to the rich opportunities available to them, both academically and socially, and corrects their often exaggerated misperceptions of campus drinking norms. Importantly, these messages should also be complemented with systems, policies, and processes that consistently hold students accountable if they do not live up to this new set of expectations of young adulthood.

Tip #5. Make prevention messages ever-present and ongoing. Two hallmarks of strong prevention approaches are salience and repetition. We should ensure that prevention and promotion messages are ubiquitous in the new college environment – in the classroom, in residence halls, on school websites, in prevention programs, and across campus. And, like any good college curriculum, these messages should build on each other over time to deepen students’ understanding and sharpen their skills. One particular point to be aware of is the importance of including messages about the availability of resources for sexual assault survivors, particularly during the heightened risk period in the initial weeks of first-year students’ time on campus. EverFi research has shown that survivors who receive training on how to report a complaint, the availability of confidential resources, and on the campus investigation process were significantly more likely to report their assault.

As you embark on a new year with new and returning students, certainly embrace the notion that prevention should happen early and often but also keep yourself and your institution committed to a long-term vision for evidence-based prevention.

We wish you all the best on your efforts to promote lasting health, wellness, and safety for your students this year.