The hidden benefits of higher education: mental health and resilience

April is national stress awareness month, giving experts an opportunity to raise awareness of the causes and symptoms of stress, alongside treatments and preventions.

At the Office for Students we want every student to have a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers. One way in which we can consider whether higher education has, indeed, enriched the lives of graduates is to consider their personal wellbeing.

HEFCE’s analysis of the wellbeing of graduates finds that graduates are, on average, happier over their lifetime than non-graduates. The analysis also shows that graduates’ sense of wellbeing is more resilient in the face of difficult, and likely very stressful, circumstances such as divorce, unemployment and ill-health. Across three measures of wellbeing – life satisfaction, happiness and worthwhileness – graduates report greater wellbeing even when confronting challenging life events.

Although graduates in good health or in employment tend to be slightly more anxious than non-graduates, that changes when they consider their health to be ‘very bad’. At these times graduates are far less anxious than non-graduates. A similar pattern holds for both marital and employment status – when out of a job or divorced, graduates tend to be less anxious than non-graduates.

These findings contrast with research on the wellbeing of students while they are studying. Students report greater anxiety and less happiness while studying than young people experience outside higher education (HE). Additionally, research undertaken by UniHealth found that 8 in 10 students have experienced stress or anxiety. These findings have raised concerns for students’ mental health that have prompted action in the sector.

What are the possible interpretations of these two contrasting findings? Perhaps study is more stressful than the early-career stage for those young people who do not enter higher education. It is also possible that students in higher education respond to the pressure of their studies by learning to cope with stress and misfortune to a greater degree than those who are not subject to those pressures. If students learn resilience through their studies, whether it is explicitly taught or not, this may later enable them to better cope with poor fortune.

The OfS hopes to build on this research by considering how wellbeing scores for various groups of graduates differ and investigating how institutions are addressing the issues of welfare and well-being, including stress and mental illness, within their student populations.

Read the full report on graduate wellbeing.

This post is based on an article by James Zuccollo, originally published on the HEFCE blog on 21 December 2017.


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