Peter Lake

Higher education leaders have the opportunity to benefit—in a multitude of ways—from path-breaking scientific research that demonstrates the efficacy and efficiency of evidence-based prevention strategies. There are at least seven reasons, outlined below, for you to lead your institution to implement promising evidence-based prevention practices.

1. Evidence-based prevention programming is foundational to the success of existing risk management and compliance efforts at your institution

The age of prevention is here: A long era of legal business law protections for higher education has come to an end. In the face of today’s monumental and diverse higher education risks—see “The New Risk Management”—it is no longer sustainable for institutions to rely predominantly on efforts to mitigate or deflect mismanaged risk. Institutions now face massive exposure arising from compliance failures and improperly managed risk — including fines, settlements and legal judgments, brand degradation, even program closure. Indeed, the failure to get in front of catastrophic situations may be contributing to the loss of social trust in higher education institutions generally.

Set the Tone for the Future of Your Institution

Prevention education is one of the most sound investments an institution can make, and new data show that issues of safety and well-being impact all stages of the student lifecycle.

In this current moment, effective leaders guide their institutions to population-level efforts that yield demonstrable and lasting impacts, and don’t simply react to crises. For example, colleges will face increasing pressure this year to demonstrate that Title IX systems actually deliver on the statutory goals of Title IX—reducing sex discrimination and mitigating its impacts. Simply running Title IX ‘court’-like systems with elaborate policies will not achieve those goals. Without a commitment to prevention as an institutionalized process, a campus is doomed to repeat cycles of risk and therapeutic response — compliance effort and compliance error. Response and compliance efforts only work effectively when supported by prevention efforts; and vice versa. Prevention requires a well-led commitment to an ongoing institutional process. Leaders must help their institutions move beyond viewing prevention work merely as a set of deliverables, such as a collection of various programs and policies.

2. Lead your network to make decisions and frame conversations with decision-based options

Choose comprehensive science-based, population-level, longitudinal prevention practices, which are funded and staffed sufficiently. Connect prevention efforts to campus-wide strategic planning efforts.EVERFI’s framework for comprehensive prevention is a leading baseline model to help inform your current prevention efforts, and will help your campus self-assess the state of prevention efforts. Is your institution currently resourcing some features of such a framework—e.g., some education programs, some institutional research on violence or bias—without a coherent and cohesive effort to link practices and make them effective in terms of measurable outcomes? Are institutional prevention efforts disconnected from strategic planning and implementation efforts? Good stewardship implies committing to what works, connecting prevention efforts to institutional mission, and not dissipating resources in pursuit of efforts, however well-intentioned, that lack demonstrable efficacy. For example, redesigning a campus anti-hazing policy to include state-of-the art language will likely have little to no impact on reducing hazing without the support of comprehensive, population-level prevention efforts. 

3. We now know that evidence-based prevention efforts bear demonstrable returns

Institutions historically have made only modest investments in prevention as a percentage of annual budget, which in retrospect—and with the aid of contemporary data and research—was not an ideal business decision. We now have evidence linking greater investments in prevention with specific measurable positive outcomes. Data-driven prevention effort improves student success on several metrics and more than pay for themselves in outcomes. For example, students that participate in prevention education are 65% more likely to report feeling valued in the classroom, and over 60% more likely to report feeling like they are a part of their college or university, than students who do not receive this training. Participating in prevention education enhances student perception of connection and belonging — key predictors of student retention and success.  

4. Evidence-based prevention plays a critical role in crisis management

Axiomatically, good prevention work reduces the risk of crisis. Of course crises may arise despite all prevention efforts; however, institutional readiness in responding to and communicating about a crisis will be stronger for those that have been committed to evidence-based prevention strategies. As think businesses, institutions of higher education can expect to be held accountable to think and then act as such institutions would. Institutions with strong prevention commitments have answers to tough questions in times of crisis. They are better suited to engage in constructivist efforts to learn from a crisis and continue to improve outcomes. On the other hand, institutions that have cut funding for prevention work may face challenges managing narratives in the face of crisis.

5. Consumers increasingly expect a campus with strong and visible prevention efforts supported by senior leadership

An EVERFI survey found that eighty-two percent of high school seniors felt that safety, well-being, and inclusion were as important as academic rigor when deciding where to attend college, yet over forty percent reported that finding information about a campus’s prevention efforts was difficult. . Many institutions are now choosing to spotlight their commitment to today’s evidence-based prevention efforts. For example,  EVERFI’s Seal of Prevention – a mark of distinction for institutions meeting a set of science-based standards for prevention practices,offers both visibility and credibility to an institution’s commitment to prevention. When asked whether they were more likely to choose an institution to attend that had been awarded the Seal, over one third high school seniors responded “yes.” These data reaffirm that it is essential for colleges and universities to both invest in prevention, and to promote that investment as a strategic element of their brand and value.

6. The law increasingly measures institutional performance according to promising practices in evidence-based prevention work

Consider a 2018 case from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that held a university has a legally “special” relationship with students. In Nguyen v. MIT (Mass. 2018), a graduate student died by suicide, but the court determined that MIT met its “special” relationship obligations because it created and implemented evidence-based prevention measures. MIT was called to account: MIT’s evidence-based prevention strategies provided the court with an account that convinced that court MIT was properly discharging its duties to students. Nguyen specifically and positively referred to MIT’s use of the Jed Foundation’s Framework for Developing Institutional Protocols for the Acutely Distressed or Suicidal College Student (2006) – an evidence-based promising practices document.

In 2020, Massachusetts again affirmed its commitment to imposing “special” relationship standards of care on institutions in line with sound prevention science. Helfman v. Northeastern University (Mass. 2020) held that a university has a legal obligation to protect students from criminals who prey opportunistically upon students who have become voluntarily intoxicated. Helfman aligned itself with insights from modern prevention science, recognizing that some risks correlated with student alcohol consumption can be reduced with reasonable care. 

Prevention science enters the courtroom regularly these days, often through testimony from expert witnesses. Reported legal cases are but the tip of an iceberg; it is now routine for a college to offer science- and research-based expert testimony to demonstrate that it has honored its duties to college students. Rumors of a return to in loco parentis are false: the legal system does not ask colleges to act like parents but to act like an intelligent, science-driven industry. Students are now entitled to depend on institutions not as surrogates but as the responsible businesses that engage in proactive efforts to create inclusive, reasonably safe learning experiences. Institutions can expect insurers and loss-spreading entities to increasingly demand that institutions engage in evidence-based prevention practices. Changes in the law are driving business reform in the higher education field.     

Similarly, prevention has become a prominent factor in compliance work. For example, the 2014 VAWA Amendments to the Clery Act state that prevention programs should be “informed by research or assessed for value, effectiveness, or outcome.” Institutions also have rigorous biennial reporting requirements regarding alcohol and drug prevention programs, pursuant to the 1989 amendments to the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (DFSCA), as explained in the Education Department General Administrative Regulations (EDGAR) Part 86.. There are potentially serious legal consequences for failing to have, and report upon, evidence-based prevention practices on campus. 

7. There has been a shift in prevention technology and science that will trigger legal and social policy changes over time

Decades ago the law took the position that there were no resource effective ways for colleges to engage in many forms of prevention, especially related to high-risk alcohol use. That line of thinking has been discredited and rejected. See Regents of University of California v. Superior Court, 4 Cal. 5th 607 (2018), rejecting “bystander” era court cases that espoused pre-modern prevention assumptions. Prevention science has evolved; law and policy are evolving with the technology, and so will expectations. Prevention strategies can be implemented today at relatively low cost, with demonstrable benefits outweighing those costs. Higher education can learn lessons from other industries who have experienced changes in safety technology; the law and policy-makers will expect the higher education industry to move forward with relevant safety technology as that technology evolves in efficiency and evidence-based efficacy. Prevention for colleges today is where seat belts, car seats, and back-up cameras were as those emerged in automobile safety technology. Once thought to be cost prohibitive and/or undesirable to consumers, these evidence-based safety technologies have become ubiquitous in automobiles. At the risk of showing my age, prevention on college campuses must evolve past a mother’s extended right arm in the front seat as a proxy for a seat belt or car seat. It is a risky business decision for college leaders to rely on long standing customary attitudes regarding prevention practices from times past. 

In summary, allocating leadership resources and funding for prevention aligns with sound institutional risk management. This is precisely the time to invest in evidence-based prevention practices to improve multiple metrics — from enrollment management to compliance risk. There is opportunity here to use breakthroughs in prevention science to improve institutional performance. But leaders must ask themselves, do you believe in this thing or not, and choose to avail themselves of today’s science and take the risk to invest in prevention in visionary ways that previous generations of higher education leaders often did not.

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Peter Lake is a Professor of Law, Charles A. Dana Chair, and Director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. He is an internationally-recognized expert on higher education law and policy and has been quoted or referred to in hundreds of media publications and court opinions throughout the United States.