Education institutions ‘have to have some responsibility for an ROI’: Barnard College president

Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock sits down with Yahoo Finance’s Julie Hyman at the 2023 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss student financial needs at American universities, addressing students' mental health, and how institutions can provide professional support.

Video Transcript

DAVE BRIGGS: All right, our coverage of the Davos World Economic Forum continues, where, earlier, our very own Julie Hyman sat down with Barnard College President Sian Beilock about the state of higher education here in America. Beilock will soon be the president of Dartmouth, where undergraduate students are fortunate enough to avoid student debt, thanks to grants provided by the university. Hear what she had to say.

SIAN LEAH BEILOCK: Dartmouth is really amazing in its ability to be need blind and meet full financial need, not just for domestic students, but for international students. And it is a really attractive proposition to be able to look and find the best and brightest, regardless of background, and bring them to a place like Dartmouth to learn and grow and hopefully go out and change the world.

JULIE HYMAN: Obviously, every university can't do that, right, and every college and institute of higher learning because they don't necessarily have the financial resources. What do you think needs to be done on a broader basis about the student lending situation?

SIAN LEAH BEILOCK: I think there's no one size fits all for how education works. I think that's really important. And I think we have to think about all different sorts of degrees and success at all different sorts of degrees, whether it's certificates, two-year colleges, and actually helping students get to four-year universities if that's what they want. But it's time to sort of unpack and look at different ways to have individuals get the skills they need to go out and be successful in our workforce.

JULIE HYMAN: Do you think that's something that needs to come from the top-down, from the government changing the sort of lending system in the US? Do you think it needs to come from universities? Do you think it just needs to be a cultural change with how we approach higher ed?

SIAN LEAH BEILOCK: I do think universities and institutions have to have some responsibility for an ROI on the student investment. And I think not enough institutions are really talking about that, putting it forward. It also, I think, comes from companies and students demanding those sorts of changes. But when you're talking about what you might learn at an institution, that institution should also be talking about the percent of students that go on to get jobs, go to grad school within six months, what you would make, the skills you would learn. And it's time to connect higher education with the skills we need in the workforce.

JULIE HYMAN: Of course, it's not just about this sort of nitty gritty learning for an education, right? And the magic of Davos, we happened to be at a dinner last night where you talked about some of these themes. What is the biggest problem or biggest challenge or biggest gap that you see among students right now when it comes to just, are they going to class as much as they should be? Are they paying attention in class? What is the biggest issue right now?

SIAN LEAH BEILOCK: Yeah, I mean, there's no question there's a mental health crisis among young people. And again, I think this is where institutions and companies, when they employ those individuals, really have a place-- a part to play in this-- how we support students, how we think about ensuring that mental health is part of what success is, and actually being very explicit about what it means to be successful.

Many young people spent three years interacting with everyone through devices, through the screen. We know the value of in-person contact. We know the value of those informal conversations. We now have to make that explicit for the younger generations so that they're poised to take the great next steps.

JULIE HYMAN: How is all of that manifesting itself, the mental health crisis that you talk about on campus?

SIAN LEAH BEILOCK: Well, we're certainly seeing it in increased feelings of loneliness, of depression, of anxiety. And this is where institutions can come in and really play a part. At Barnard, where I'm president currently, we're actually building the LeFrak Center for Wellbeing in the middle of campus that's focused on physical being, mental being, and financial wellbeing because we believe that especially for women to be empowered and be mentally healthy, you have to be financially healthy. And this is all part and parcel with what success is.

JULIE HYMAN: I'm curious, once those students then leave and go into the workforce, what do you want them to-- you're a cognitive scientist, I should mention as well. And so you investigate all of these issues. What do you want them to take away? I mean, obviously, employees need support from their employer, from their community, et cetera. But internally, what do you want your students to take away in terms of how they can preserve and foster their mental health?

SIAN LEAH BEILOCK: First of all, I want them to take away that failure is part of life, and that it's not always about being safe. Like, being uncomfortable is part of growing. And so I want them to take away this idea we talk about as a brave space, that it's OK to fail and get up. And those are some of the best challenges that you encounter. I want them also to take away that you don't do this on your own, that there are times when you reach out to people who are experts.

As a leader, I reach out to experts all the time in different fields to understand and just take step forward. There's places to go if you need mental support. These are all things. We're not in this alone. And I think that's the onus is on companies now, to think about how they support their workforce, and certainly, on institutions. We're not in this alone. And successful people rarely do it alone. And by providing some of these supports at the university level, I think we poise students and put students in a place that when they go and take that next step, they also know they don't have to do it alone.

JULIE HYMAN: And just a quick follow-up question on that, there has been this wave of more corporations providing mental health support. Is it real support? Is it helpful support?

SIAN LEAH BEILOCK: Look, I think even acknowledging that our mental health matters is so important. Just, we know as psychologists, just being-- calling things out for where they are, I think it's such an important component of having a sticky workforce of individuals thinking that their company cares about them, that they belong. This is good business practice.

If we want the best outcomes out of people, we have to help support them so they can do their best thinking. And so there's a variety of ways to do this, but even providing free counseling or providing places where you can take a mental health day or other things, these are the kinds of supports that I do think they have to be systematic, and they have to be company wide, but can actually change how people feel about an organization.

JULIE HYMAN: Sian, thank you so much. Sian Beilock of Barnard and soon to be of Dartmouth as well, appreciate it.