5 Ways to Engage the Healthy Majority and Bolster Student Wellness

Most students engage in healthy behaviors. But movies and TV shows about college sure don’t make that statement seem true. 

It is well-documented, but not (yet) widely understood, that most students do not engage in high-risk drinking or drug use, perpetuate violence, nor otherwise engage in risky or dangerous activities. This is especially true of today’s students. Previous generations have engaged in riskier behaviors more often, while iGeneration students prefer safety

If you work in prevention in any capacity, it is key to understand this trend. Lots of prevention work has been unfairly focused on the minority of students who engage in high-risk behavior. While such prevention work can be evidence-based and helpful in changing individual behavior, it is wrong to pigeonhole our work on a minority of students. 

If we widen our prevention lens toward the healthy majority, we can shift attitudes and the culture at our institutions in many meaningful ways. Research shows that programming strategically to the healthy majority can also lead to behavioral changes in students who are not choosing healthy behaviors. 

Here are my suggestions for engaging the healthy majority. 

5 Tips

1. Understand who the healthy majority is

The first step in programming for your campus’s healthy majority is to understand this student population on your campus. Institutional data is key here. 

You may have this data already on hand. For example, if you partner with Everfi, SafeColleges, or similar platforms, you can dig into your data to assess student behavior.

You could also find great data from NCHA survey or Core Institute Survey results.  Both include information on students’ alcohol use and perceptions, as well as student attitudes and behavior regarding other health habits.  

If you are unable to find or access your own campus data, check out national data from NCHA on college student health. 

NCHA data shows that the great majority of students choose healthy behaviors. For example, 65% of students reported drinking less than four drinks the last time they drank, and 97% of students report never using prescription drugs that were not prescribed to them. 

2. Program for the healthy majority

Once you understand and identify your healthy majority, you can begin programming for them. It is not an equitable use of prevention resources to only spend money on adjudicating conduct cases or providing BASICS meetings, especially when it is known that the most privileged students participate in many of the most high-risk behaviors. 

You can program to the healthy majority by hosting fun events that students can attend in lieu of drinking or engaging in other high-risk activities. Movie screenings, concerts, games, and craft nights are all excellent options. Host these events during times that have been socially interpreted as drinking hours, AKA Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. 

If you have an office on campus that already hosts these kinds of programs, reach out to see how you can collaborate. For example, my office partners with our late-night programming team to provide a wellness-themed late-night event each semester.  

It is also important to consider space. Many students do not care about flashy comedians or hypnotists but crave a space on campus to simply hang out with their peers. This is why 24/7 dining halls, coffee shops, and lounge areas are good prevention initiatives. Promote these spaces so that your students don’t feel like going to an off-campus party or bar are their only options for making new friends. 

3. Utilize social norming data

Social norms theory revolves around the fact that most people engage in healthy behaviors but overestimate the participation of their peers in unhealthy behaviors. This cognitive roadblock pressures students to engage in unhealthy behavior. For example, although most students do not drink more than four drinks per hour, they believe that most of their friends do. 

Social norms data can counter this, changing student behavior for the better and leading to a safer campus with fewer conduct meetings. 

My office has shown off social norm data via posters across campus, especially in residence halls. We’ve shared data on our social media feeds and even produced an orientation play that welcomed students to campus with motivational facts. 

We are such big believers in social norm data because science shows us how extremely effective it is at changing student behavior!

4. Offer bystander Intervention 

Bystander intervention is another way to utilize your health majority in prevention programming. It’s a way to train students to recognize warning signs of violence so that they can appropriately step in to prevent it. 

Bystander intervention training also addresses behaviors and attitudes that make violence more acceptable among students, such as demeaning women and not believing survivors of violence. 

Bystander intervention is a great way to program to your healthy majority because most students want their peers to be safe and disagree with attitudes that permit violence. Only a very small minority of students have ever been physically violent. And when they are confronted by a student who disagrees, they may reconsider their behavior. 

If you don’t have a bystander intervention program on your campus, consider looking into Bringing in the Bystander or Green Dot. Both are highly reputable programs that show changes in attendees’ attitudes and behaviors. 

If paying for a curriculum is not within your budget, consider designing your own bystander intervention program. Start by learning about the components of successful bystander intervention techniques — like peer-led education, the three D’s, intervention techniques, and inspiring others to act.  

5. Utilize peer educators

Another way to best reach your healthy majority is to employ wellness and prevention peer educators. It is well-known that when students hear from their peers, they are more likely to listen and change their behaviors.

When you hire a team of peer-educators, educate them on healthy behaviors to spread those messages to their classmates and friends. 

On my campus, we have a team of 25 wellness and prevention peer educators who are supervised by a team of three graduate students. The graduate students train the peer educators to lead Bringing in the Bystander sessions for all new students, to plan and implement programs for their peers on dimensions of wellness, and provide one-on-one wellness coaching to their peers. 

My coworkers and I have found that when we teach students the socio-ecological model and evidence-based practices for behavior change, they get excited to write their own programs that fit within our model, which, in turn empowers them to see programs all the way through. And the best part? They invite their friends to show up… and they do!

Leveraging our wellness and prevention peer educators to unite our campus’s healthy majority has been a windfall for engaging more students than ever before.

By implementing programs and supporting the healthy majority on your campus, you can make students safer.

gif of a person saying 'that's a win-win situation'

How have you engaged your healthy majority? We’d love to hear your stories @themoderncampus.

Kacie Otto

About the author: Kacie Otto (she/her) is the Violence Prevention Specialist and Victim Advocate at Marquette University. If she’s not knitting or reading a book about feminism, you might find her at a campsite or in a thrift shop. Learn how we can help get your students involved.