Creating Community in Higher Education


Higher Education institutions are often competitive “dog eat dog” environments.

The culture can be stressful and isolating for students, faculty, staff, and administration. This is true of physical campuses, but this culture can also be increasingly seen in the rapidly growing world of online teaching and learning.  

What would it take to change that? 

What if we could design environments within higher education that supported the values of inclusion, collaboration, thriving, resilience, problem-solving, empathy, and other key attributes for the 21st century?

Aligning with the Six Seconds’ quarterly theme of Community, we asked ourselves, “What does it mean to form a community in higher education?” We wondered, “How can a sense of community lessen the impact of the challenges that students and faculty face on campus? How can we ensure that the growing number of online learners, globally, are connected and engaged? And, most importantly, how can Emotional Intelligence (EQ) help?”

How can emotional intelligence foster community in higher education?

How are students impacted by high-stress higher education environments?

What are some of the issues that students in colleges and universities face? Loneliness and stress are major concerns for students; a recent study found that 1 in 5 college students are experiencing anxiety or depression, the primary reasons students seek mental health counseling.  

Many students experience a deep sense of isolation. Significant real world issues can make the university an isolating, stress-filled place for many students. Concerns include worries about “fitting in” due to race, gender, socioeconomic disparities, first generation status, and current political anxieties. And then there are the financial stressors, which include incurring huge amounts of college debt and the need to work multiple jobs to pay that debt off. Student drop-out rates are exceptionally high. Bill Gates shared that while more than 2 million students begin college in the United States, “based on the latest college completion trends, only about half of all those students will leave college with a diploma. The rest — most of them low-income, first-generation, and minority students — will not finish a degree. They’ll drop out.”

Additional stressors include excessive social media usage, sleep disturbances, alcohol and drug usage, and the pressure of getting a job post-college. In many universities, students are forced to compete for highest grades, awards and honors, and are often discouraged from collaborative endeavors. In 2001, Clifton and Anderson wrote that “more students leave college because of disillusionment, discouragement, or reduced motivation than because of lack of ability or dismissal by school administration.”

Stress in Higher Education Faculty

In universities, faculty also report experiencing mental health issues including stress, lack of job fulfillment, and burnout. Shaw and Ward, in an article in the Guardian Higher Ed Network blog, wrote that, “University staff battling anxiety, poor work-life balance and isolation aren’t finding the support they need.”  According to the American Association of University Professors, among the top ten workplace issues for faculty are: job security, appointment confirmations, workload “creep,” office politics, harassment and bullying. Contingent faculty, which includes adjuncts, postdocs, teaching assistants, non-tenure-track faculty, clinical faculty, part-timers, lecturers, instructors, or non-senate faculty comprise the vast majority of college faculty in the United States. These faculty are often the most affected by low pay, lack of job security, and challenges to academic freedom, and often feel isolated from the full time faculty community.


Virtual Community

A third area of inquiry relates to the growing number of students registering for online classes, globally. According a study by the Babson Research Group, the number of students taking online courses grew to 5.8 million in the US, continuing a growth trend that has been consistent for 13 years.

The number of online university students in the United States has grown to 5.8 million.

The Versatility of Online Courses

Online courses provide many students the opportunity to enroll in higher education. More than a quarter of higher education students are enrolled in least one online course. Online courses are essential pathways for many students, health care workers and public servants, and parents whose work and family obligations limit their attendance in face-to-face brick and mortar learning.

At the same time, as online course enrollment increases, overall enrollments in higher education are down and, according to Ives, CEO of the Online Learning consortium, academic leaders are seeing that online learning is critical to their institutions’ long-term strategy. However, a disconnect still exists between university leadership and faculty in their view of online learning. At a study done at a prominent US private university, more than half of all faculty felt virtual instructors had no personal relationships with students, and that very little student to student engagement existed, resulting in a diminished educational environment.

Is this true? Is there a shared common experience of online learners? Why is their drop-out rate 15-50% higher than in synchronous face-to-face classes?

In a study of community college students in the American Southeast who were enrolled in courses with high drop-out and failure rates, researchers identified a few common themes. Students felt a tremendous sense of isolation driven by lack of authentic student to teacher engagement and a void in student-student connection. The feeling of isolation was exacerbated by perceived difficulty of course content, confusion over aspects of the course organization, and frustrations resulting from technology challenges.

So, what can be done to create a sustaining learning community for online students? Layne and Lake, in their book, Global Innovation in Teaching and Learning: Transgressing Boundaries, argue that institutions of higher education must innovate their online practices by crossing institutional, cultural, and discipline boundaries, thereby increasing collaboration and creativity to meet students’ growing needs in a globalized workspace.



How Can EQ Help?

What does it mean to form a community in higher education? How can a sense of community lessen the impact of the challenges that students and faculty face?

Many higher education leaders recognize the need to focus on building an inclusive community for all learners and for faculty and staff. They recognizing the power in incorporating EQ to strengthen student self-awareness, emotional sensitivity, purpose, and leadership, which, in turn, may strengthen and sustain the community. Dr. Eduardo Padron, President of Miami Dade College, wrote, “I could not agree more with the importance of embracing social and emotional learning at all levels of education, but particularly in higher education. We have an opportunity to affect not only individual lives but also the quality of life in our communities and our civic conversation.”

Embracing social and emotional learning in higher education equips universities to increase the quality of life for students and faculty alike.

Many academic leaders appreciate the value of EQ assessment to measure student success in navigating their higher education journey and developing the individual and collaborative skills needed to succeed. In times of change, it is even more important to help students develop EQ competencies. In the opinion of Juan Carlos Henao Pérez, rector of the Externado de Colombia University, “we must educate for uncertainty more than for security, to train free citizens”.

On June 13th, from 8-1:30 PM, Six Seconds will host the first ever EQ and Higher Ed virtual conference.  Our keynote speakers and panelists will address the challenges and opportunities for Community building in colleges and universities around the world. They will provide strategies for improving community for students, faculty, and online teaching and learning, and discuss their experience with EQ in deepening and sustaining these unique communities and supporting their growth.

Please join us to learn more about community building and EQ in Higher Education from our diverse collection of speakers and panelists.




Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine engaged in a study whose purpose was to find the success factors of naturopathic physicians and learn best ways to inculcate them during their medical school training. The authors of the study believed that increasing emotional intelligence (EQ) would enable these students to be more successful, and according to Hagan, “Helping naturopathic physicians to be successful, is helping the world’s people to heal.”

“At Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, we are measuring emotional intelligence and correlating the success of the student both academically and in life. Self-awareness of one’s emotions creates confidence, which in turn, creates success. We have been pleased to see how well the Six Second SEI assessments have predicted the leadership of not only individuals, but also of the entire class. These tools create in the students a sense of pride, which empowers them to endeavor new challenges. The students see themselves in a different light and step out in life with so much more confidence. It is making a difference in their collective lives. What a joy to witness the transformation!”

Joanna M. Hagan

Director of Career Services

Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine





Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine researchers used the Six Seconds’ SEI assessment in an exploratory study to assess the emotional intelligence (EQ) of a cohort of student doctors as they progressed through the preclinical years of training at a medical school. The researchers believed that:

A physician’s emotional intelligence may impact his or her ability to cope with stress and organizational demands, motivate patients to change, and perform well on patient satisfaction measures. Each of these areas is of increasing importance in the changing landscape of healthcare delivery and requires attention to systemic and relationship dynamics.

“Given the concern of declining EQ among medical students during their medical training, these researchers sought to discover the course of EQ during the preclinical years and whether specific competencies could be enhanced. The researchers found an overall decrease in total EQ over the two years, however students’ baseline scores on the scales of Enhanced Emotional Literacy and Pursuit of Noble Goals remained stable. The researchers concluded that coaching, early intervention, and curricular integration of EQ competencies, may prevent EQ from declining during the preclinical years. They stated that, “the ability of a physician to apply knowledge and skills with emotional sensitivity is desired . . . the more we understand the association of emotional intelligence with the making of a physician, the more it will influence our medical school curricula.”

Linda S. Mintle, Ph.D., MSW

Chair, Behavioral Health

Director, Strategic Development for Clinical Affair

Title IX Deputy

College of Osteopathic Medicine



Pin It on Pinterest

Share This