President Speaks: Building a ‘launchpad’ for students stalled by COVID-19

Marlene Tromp is the president of Boise State University, in Idaho.

We have been justly cautious about the threat COVID-19 poses to people’s physical well-being. A consideration that has received far less attention is the mental health impact on college-aged students, whether those students are learning face-to-face, hybrid or online. 

Colleges and universities have an urgent responsibility to use their research prowess and student support infrastructure to gather information about how best to serve our students, right now and into the future. Indeed, we must do so together, collaborating and sharing information and strategies so the young leaders we train can survive and thrive in spite of the challenges presented by this moment. Young people are our future, and our future depends upon our ability to make a difference for them now. 

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the pandemic’s toll on adults ages 18 to 24 was striking. Sixty-three percent of people in this group reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder and 25% reported seriously considering suicide in the past 30 days — the latter is more than double the rates seen in 2018, according to another study, Live Science reported

Boise State University President Marlene Tromp

Marlene Tromp is the president of Boise State University.

Permission granted by Boise State University


This age group also currently reports nearly 2.5 times the rate of suicidality as any other segment of the population, per CDC data. The nonprofit Mental Health America found that their number of anxiety screenings per day in June was up 406% from January and depression screenings 457%, with a similar steep increase for those at risk for psychosis. “The mental health impacts,” they note in a report, “continue to be more pronounced” in people under 25. “Roughly 9 in 10 are screening with moderate-to-severe depression, and 8 in 10 are screening with moderate-to-severe anxiety,” the report states. 

Studies focusing on college students as a subset of this age group have shown similar increases. The American College Health Association and the Healthy Minds Network found notable increases in depression and suicide risk among college students, and an Active Minds survey in September found that 75% of students reported their mental health worsened during the pandemic.

We can’t ascribe this phenomenon to special fragility. The reasons for such high mental health impacts parallel the reasons those students are in college and are orthogonal to those of people who are solidly advanced in their careers. 

Young adults are poised to launch into their future, and college is often their springboard. As one researcher noted, “Emerging adulthood is a very intense time of life … [when people ages 18 to 29] are making big decisions. It’s the liftoff decade for your entry to an adult career path.” Moreover, according to psychologists, the time is also developmentally critical. This generation of students, like those before them, needs the support of their teachers, coaches and advisers. 

As a nation, we have been attentive to investing in business and healthcare, both important areas for our well-being and future. We need to be just as deliberate about supporting our students. Not only are they valuable as individuals and as a collective — they, too, are critical to our future. 

Institutions of higher learning must gather data and conduct research deeply and broadly, in line with our particular institutional strengths and capacities. There is an urgency to this work. We have young people just beginning and just exiting college. We have K-12 students who may now need additional support to overcome new hurdles. While I have great confidence in the resilience and strength of young people, understanding better how to help them recover and accelerate into meaningful careers during this time will have an impact not only on their lives but also on the economic and social well-being of our nation and the world for many years to come. 

Colleges and universities can provide a fundamental and key service to humanity by deploying our whole array of tools for analysis to better understand and to address the challenges our young people face. 

Boise State is launching several efforts to this end. We aim to recraft a launchpad for our students and have created a task force that our provost has dubbed “Apollo 13.” This group means to aid our intrepid student learners in completing their disrupted academic mission by developing creative new support strategies while they are in flight. Comprised of academic, student success and mental health leaders, this task force will strategize with student groups, gather data and problem solve — just like scientists did in Houston’s mission control center during that threatened Apollo mission. 

I am not only meeting with student groups myself, but I also am co-teaching a class called “Leading & Learning During Uncertain Times” with my colleague Gordon Jones, dean of our College of Innovation and Design. The course is designed to conceptualize new strategies to support our students in partnership with them; engage in quantitative and qualitative data collection through our office of institutional research; and have real dialogue between students and administrators. We will introduce students to the very complex work of higher education and learn from them about the broad-ranging impacts of the pandemic, along with what’s working for them, what’s not, and how we can evolve to better serve. 

Publishing findings on all of our research in an open-source and accessible way will allow us to benefit from one another’s work. As provost at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I felt a deep pride in the fact that the colleagues who assembled the human genome made that data readily available to other researchers, which accelerated additional breakthroughs in healthcare, science and engineering. Globally, many institutions are sharing treatment protocols for COVID-19

We should be sharing data, strategies and insights that can help all of us advance the professional and personal well-being of our students. I invite you to join the national conversation by sharing those materials in a searchable, open-source clearinghouse at Rebuilding the Launchpad

We will also be hosting a national summit on Dec. 1 focused on quickly and creatively responding to the crisis. The event will feature presidents and chancellors from around the country, as well as leading mental health and student life experts.

Higher education has a three-part mission: to teach, research and serve. This is a moment when we are called with urgency to do all three for our students and our nation’s future. We must respond to that call.

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