3 Questions to Ask When Evaluating Your Campus Mass Notification System

In late 2019, the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) surveyed members about the challenges facing Higher Ed. The organization found the top three challenges were funding, student mental health, and diversity and inclusion. Following the start of the COVID-19 crisis, respondents were asked if the pandemic had changed the top challenges in any way. It hadn't.

The report of the APLU’s survey – “How COVID-19 Changed Everything And Nothing At All” (PDF) – was released last June; and, although the size of the survey was relatively small (558 APLU members were surveyed), the report is noteworthy for distinguishing challenges between being big, small, or not a challenge – either because the challenge had been addressed, or because it never existed.

Because of the way public and land-grant universities are funded, it was no surprise to find funding at the top of the list (77% big challenge/17% small challenge). Once inflation is taken into account, state funding for public colleges and universities had fallen by nearly $9 billion in the ten years prior to the pandemic; and respondents to the APLU's survey anticipate funding may become more of an challenge in the future due to state finances being reallocated to address public health issues.

With regards to student mental health (68% big challenge/22% small challenge), this has been a growing issue for more than a decade. In (pre-pandemic) January 2020, we reported how the number of students receiving mental health treatment had grown by 35% over the previous five years. In a subsequent mental health survey conducted in July 2020, 75% of surveyed college students reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress due to the COVID-19 crisis.

It was interesting to note that the diversity and inclusion issue (63% big challenge/25% small challenge) did not only relate to students, but also to faculty and staff. Respondents to the original fall 2019 survey rated this challenge highly due to day-to-day antagonism between student groups, professors expressing personal political opinion in class, and a growing number of peaceful protests disrupted by professional “nonaffiliates” looking to cause trouble on campus.

Due to the uneven impact COVID-19 is having on communities of color both in terms of infection rates and treatment, APLU members are concerned divisive campus climates could further deteriorate. Indeed, speaking about all three Higher Ed challenges, one of the survey's organizers commented: “Everything the schools are facing in COVID [are] the exact same set of things that they identified pre-COVID, except they're on steroids”.

[INFOGRAPHIC]: College Students & Coronavirus: A Rising Mental Health Crisis

What Does This Have To Do With Campus Notification Systems?

Contrary to some definitions, campus mass notification systems are more than communication platforms that send one-way messages to alert students, faculty, and staff to an emergency. While this may be one of their primary roles, campus mass notification systems can help Higher Ed institutions do more with less in terms of improving communication to address student mental health challenges and challenges related to diversity and inclusion – for students, faculty, and staff.

But let's start by discussing emergency alerts and how campus mass notification systems can help colleges and universities do more with less. Typically, Higher Ed campuses have a range of emergency alert mechanisms from PA systems to desktop alerts and warning beacons. Often these mechanisms work independently of each other; so, when an emergency occurs, each mechanism may have to be activated separately - which takes time and could delay the emergency response.

The longer it takes to issue emergency alerts and notify emergency services, the longer students, faculty, and staff are exposed to danger. Furthermore, if an emergency response is delayed, it could result in greater business disruption and a longer recovery period. Ultimately – while well-meaning - the consequences of implementing multiple independent emergency alert mechanisms could include a greater degree of injury, increased property damage, and financial loss during recovery.

A campus mass notification system such as Rave Alert overcomes these potential issues by integrating disparate emergency alert mechanisms into one unified system with one goal – to alert the maximum number of people to an emergency in the least possible time. The platform can also be configured to automatically alert emergency services to the nature and location of an emergency and provide facility details to further accelerate emergency response.

Therefore, while campuses may be reluctant to extend their investment in campus security due to concerns about future funding, implementing a campus mass notification system with the capabilities of Rave Alert can increase the efficiency of existing security investments, accelerate emergency response, and mitigate the consequences of an emergency event. In addition, due to the system's ease of use, Rave Alert can also reduce the management overhead of campus security.

[CHECKLIST]: Higher Education Capabilities for the Post-COVID Campus and Beyond

How Does Having a More Efficient Campus Mass Notification System Better Support Student Mental Health?

While it could be claimed that a safer campus environment reduces student anxiety and thereby contributes towards better student mental health, it could equally be claimed that students are oblivious to most emergency alert mechanisms (until they are activated), and that enhancing campus safety during the COVID-19 pandemic - while so many students are studying remotely - will have no impact on improving their mental health. That's not the case with Rave Alert.

Rave Alert has a polling module through which system administrators can send daily wellness checks inquiring about students' mental health. The polls take the format of a question with multiple answers and can be sent to all students simultaneously by SMS text, email, or voice broadcast. Students reply to the text by pressing a number on their cell phone keypad and – depending on the responses – automated follow-up messages can be sent providing help, support, and resources.

More about Wellness Checks and Polling Students to Assess Their Mental Health

One of the capabilities of Rave Alert that affects both emergency notifications and wellness checks is unlimited database segmentation. This means contacts in the database can be segmented into groups and subgroups according to individual user attributes. In the context of emergency notifications, this capability ensures emergency notifications are only sent to those for whom the notification is relevant – preventing excessive concern and limiting disruption.

In the context of wellness checks, the content of “check-ins” can differ by group depending on whether students have been identified as suffering from a symptom of poor mental health. For those who have shown no indication of mental health issues, system administrators can continue asking general questions about decreased mood, appetite, or self-esteem, etc. For those that have reported symptom of poor mental health, the content may have to be more sensitive or targeted. 

Like campus mass emergency notifications, wellness checks and follow-up messages can be prepared in advanced and saved as templates. Once the wellness checks have been sent, the Rave Alert platform records open and response rates (which helps identify students who may be avoiding answering the question) and flags any follow-up actions that cannot be automated so counsellors can get involved at an early stage and prevent mental health issues deteriorating into crises.

Addressing Diversity and Inclusion Challenges Depends on How You Define Diversity and Inclusion Challenges

Challenges relating to diversity and inclusion have unfortunately existed for decades; but, in recent years, education leaders have identified an increasing trend for the topic to be politicized. In the introduction to this blog we mentioned how respondents to the APLU survey had concerns about peaceful protests being disrupted by professional “nonaffiliates”, and this is not a concern exclusive to public college and university campuses – it has happened all over the country.

However, while the APLU's report focuses on diversity and inclusion for “communities of color”, the term diversity can relate to any member of an “outgroup” – a category of society that is not treated equally, fairly, or respectfully. Similarly, the Society for Human Resource Management defines inclusion as being an environment in which all individuals) have equal access to opportunities and resources and can contribute fully to the organization's success.

In the context of campus mass notification systems, technology alone cannot resolve the challenges of diversity and inclusion; but what it can do is be a pivotal part of a people/processes/technology/data diamond in which the people (education leaders) create processes (diversity and inclusion policies) and monitor data (for compliance) provided by technology. The technology in this case is a student safety app that has anonymous tip texting capabilities and is integrated with the Rave Alert platform.

Rave Guardian is an ideal personal  safety app for students. Along with virtual escort capabilities, the app can act as a repository for vital information (i.e., policies and procedures, campus maps, mental health resources, etc.) and connect students to campus security with the tap of a screen. If it is inappropriate to speak when connected to security, the app displays the student's location so help can be dispatched immediately. It is also possible to send images and video to security via the app.

The anonymous tip texting capabilities empower students to report threats, crimes, or any breaches of diversity and inclusion policies discreetly. When reports are collated on the Rave Alert platform, system administrators are unaware of their source and are therefore unable to prioritize one report over another on the basis of the student's sex, race, color, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or other attribute. The same applies if anonymous tips are submitted by faculty or staff via the app.

So, What About the 3 Questions to Ask When Evaluating Your Campus Mass Notification System?

To recap on what's been discussed so far – the biggest challenges facing Higher Ed are funding, student mental health, and diversity and inclusion. Technology alone won't resolve these challenges, but a campus mass notification system consisting of Rave Alert and Rave Guardian can help colleges and universities extract more value out of existing emergency alert mechanisms, prevent student mental health issues deteriorating into crises, and support equal representation in security issues.

Therefore, the three questions to ask when evaluating your campus mass notification system are:

  •   What is the system's value proposition?
  •   Does the system support student mental health?
  •   Does it give students, faculty, and staff a voice?

We appreciate many colleges and universities may currently be experiencing issues that affect their ability to address the challenges facing Higher Ed. However, if you would like to know more about developing a cost-effective, unified communications solution – or if you would like to see the technologies described above in action – do not hesitate to get in touch. Our team of safety experts will be happy to answer your questions and organize a demo of the Rave Alert platform and Rave Guardian student safety app.

Guide to Supporting Students On and Off Campus

Terri Mock
Terri Mock

Terri Mock is Rave's Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer, overseeing strategy, product, and marketing. She is an executive leader with achievements in delivering revenue growth, driving go-to-market, innovating products, and scaling operations from high-tech startups to global companies.

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