If you’re thinking about college, you likely have accreditation, cost, and academics on your mind. Yet an important and often overlooked factor is how your future school treats health and wellness. From physical fitness and mental well-being to issues of social, global, and environmental health, colleges and universities are prioritizing student health and wellness through new and innovative programs and policies. Below, we look at 25 colleges leading the way and what they’re doing to make a difference.
Top Colleges for Physical Health & Fitness
Back in 2010, the CDC conducted a study that concluded there was, “a positive relationship between increased physical fitness levels and academic achievement.” While that may not come as a surprise, it’s important to keep in mind that academic study is a sedentary activity. And too much sedentary activity requires increased physical activity to balance it out. The kind of physical activity that college students can find in campus gyms and through intramural sports. But not all schools are created equally when it comes to prioritizing the physical fitness of their students. Below are just some of ways colleges are putting physical fitness at the forefront of their missions.
- Campus recreation facilities: Recreational facilities can be much more than just your school’s gym. Colleges today may feature a wide range of great facilities, such as intramural athletic fields, full-service fitness centers, swimming pools, tennis courts, running and biking paths, rock walls and challenge courses, and much more. See the UCLA spotlight below for an example of a university with top-notch sports and recreation facilities.
- Fitness studios in residence halls: Convenience is often the key to getting students to move their bodies. So, some schools, like Michigan Tech, have taken the position that, “if the student won’t come to the exercise, bring the exercise to the student” by installing fitness centers or studios right in residence halls themselves.
- Personal training: Another great motivator of the sedentary college student is an appointment with a personal fitness trainer. Lots of colleges today, for example, the University of Miami, offer access to experienced certified trainers who provide a range of services including initial consultations, fitness assessments, equipment orientations, and one-on-one and group training sessions. You’ll have to schedule an appointment and, in most cases, pay the trainer his/her hourly fee.
- Intramural sports: Organized intramural sports, like those offered at the University of Notre Dame, have been a staple on college campuses for nearly as long as there have been college campuses. What may surprise you is the variety of sports programs available, which may include (along with traditional sports like football, softball, basketball, tennis, field hockey, etc.) such activities like kickball, dodgeball, ultimate Frisbee, broomball, and even competitive ping pong.
- Virtual fitness options: Virtual fitness programs, like live and on-demand cardio, Zumba, Pilates, and cycling sessions, have become a popular option for college students unable to make it to an in-person class. Additionally, some colleges are now offering virtual intramural competitions, like this Super Smash Bros. Tournament at the University of North Dakota.
While not all of these schools check off all of the items listed above, each college has made a point of prioritizing student fitness and physical health. The following schools have committed to providing its students with the means to achieve their fitness goals while encouraging their academic pursuits.
Indiana University Bloomington
Sports are big in the Midwest, and in Indiana, they’re basketball crazy. So it’s no surprise that recreational sports play an important role at Indiana University Bloomington. IU students enjoy the fullest of sports and fitness services, including dozens of intramural leagues and sports clubs covering everything from soccer and tennis to dodgeball, kickball, wallyball, battleship, and, of course, basketball. Non-competitive students can get their fitness fix through group exercise classes happening both on-campus and online. IU boasts a variety of major sports and fitness facilities, including two gyms, three pools, three field complexes, and both indoor and outdoor tennis options.
Ohio State University
Through its Student Life Recreational Sports department, OSU offers a large and impressive range of sports and fitness facilities and programs to the over 60,000 students enrolled on its Columbus campus. Services and programs include group fitness, aquatics, intramural sports and sports clubs, personal training, adventure trips, and much more. State-of-the-art facilities include five fully-equipped recreation centers, two field complexes (including the 43-acre Fred Beekman Park), the RPAC Aquatics Center, and the Outdoor Adventure Center that features a 4000-square foot climbing structure and bouldering wall.
Michigan State University
Located in East Lansing, MSU is another major Midwest university where sports is king. Organized student fitness activities for MSU’s nearly 50,000 students are supervised through the Recreations Sports and Fitness Services department. RSFS oversees the school’s vast array of programs and facilities that include a multi-purpose indoor arena, three fully-equipped indoor intramural centers, sailing center, and 27 acres of outdoor sports and recreational field space. Shared facilities include nearby golf courses and tennis courts. The RSFS department is also home to a substantial adaptive recreation program that includes swimming, goal ball, wheelchair tennis, basketball, and hockey. Athletes with disabilities can additionally join the campus’s Adaptive Sports Club.
University of California Los Angeles
Southern California is known for its “beautiful people” and at UCLA, beautiful means healthy. UCLA students have access to 16 sports and fitness facilities on or near the university’s Westwood campus. Indoor complexes include the Bruin Fitness Center (cardio and strength training), Kinross Recreation Center (yoga, spin, Zumba, and other fitness classes), and John Wooden Center (basketball, volleyball , strength and conditioning training, dance, fencing, martial arts, rock wall, etc.). Outdoor options include swimming pools, tennis courts, field facilities, and the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center for various park-amenable activities.
University of Texas at Austin
The University of Texas at Austin is home to more than 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students. UT Austin is also home to the impressively big UT Recreational Sports department that sponsors numerous sports and fitness programs, including intramural leagues, 48 sports clubs, fitness and wellness services, field and court sports, rock climbing, and adventure trips. UT is also home to the Fitness Institute of Texas, where students can access a wide variety of fitness-related services, such as fitness assessments, nutrition and lifestyle coaching, yoga and sleep fitness programs, and more.
Top Colleges Prioritizing Mental Health
It’s no secret that college can be stressful and students who are overwhelmed academically could be at greater for risk for more serious mental health issues such a depression and anxiety. A 2019 study from the American College Health Association found that almost 90% of college students had felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, while nearly two-thirds felt very lonely and over 55% had felt things were hopeless. Luckily, colleges have become keenly aware of this student mental health crisis and are mobilizing their resources to fight back by providing a range of coordinated comprehensive support services that often include the following:
- Mental health counseling and services: At the core of student mental health programs on college campuses are its counseling, therapy, and related services. Important components typically include short-term and walk-in counseling, and longer term psychiatric individual and group sessions either on-campus or via referral to off-campus resources. Michigan State University’s Counseling & Psychiatric Services program provides a solid example.
- Campus meditation: Stress reduction and anxiety relief are serious issues for college students. So, colleges, like Kent State University, are encouraging meditation practice by providing students with on-campus and virtual meditation and yoga classes and sessions with professional instructors, as well as campus spaces specifically designated for students to relax and meditate.
- Campus spas, acupuncture, massage therapy: Meditation and yoga are not for everyone, of course. Fortunately, they’re not the only practices students can employ to reduce their stress, clear their minds, and relax their bodies. As a result, many schools, like the University of Maryland, are offering alternative wellness services such as message therapy and acupuncture, often in on-campus spa settings.
- Wellness weeks: Wellness weeks have become an annual staple on many college campuses. These events typically include activities focused on the eight dimensions of wellness: emotional, financial, social, spiritual, occupational, physical, intellectual, and environmental. The dates, activities, and events that make up a particular college’s wellness week vary from school to school, and programs may or may not be co-sponsored by a national organization, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Peer Support: Student-led peer support groups are popping up on more and more college campuses each year. These groups seek to promote student awareness of the importance of mental and emotional well-being through meetings, events, and outreach initiatives. Examples include the University of Florida’s AWARE program (described below) and the University of Michigan’s Wolverine Support Network.
Here are five colleges that are doing an exemplary job of prioritizing good mental health and well-being for their students:
Duke University takes a holistic approach to the mental health needs of its students via DuWell, a program that is part of the school’s Student Wellness Center. DuWell focuses on the wellness of students through the integration of social, spiritual, physical, intellectual, financial, and mind-body well-being aspects of their lives and how they relate to their surrounding environments. Of note is DuWell’s Moments of Mindfulness program that provides students the opportunity to relax and recharge through participation in activities such as drum circles, yoga, and guided meditations.
Student mental health is a major concern at Ithaca College, which offers numerous mental wellness services to its students primarily through the three centers that make up its Office of Counseling and Wellness. The Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is where students can go for short-term individual counseling, group therapy, and same-day crisis services. The Center for Health Promotion helps students develop health and wellness skills through its THRIVE@IC wellness coaching program that deals with stress management, nutrition, exercise, substance abuse issues, and more. The Center for LGTB Education, Outreach & Services provides services to promote personal growth and academic success of IC’s LGBT student population.
University of California Davis
Through its Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS) program, UC Davis offers a comprehensive package of medical, mental health, and wellness services to all registered students regardless of health insurance coverage. Specific services include: alcohol, tobacco, and drug intervention services; individual, group, and crisis counseling; psycho-educational skills workshops; eating disorder services; massage and meditation; and resources to deal with issues regarding anxiety and stress reduction, sleep disorders, healthy eating, and general wellness.
University of Florida
The University of Florida offers a wealth of mental health programs and services through the campus’s Counseling & Wellness Center. Specific services include mental health assessment and therapy, individual counseling, crisis support, mindfulness workshops, and help for issues with drugs and alcohol. Virtual resources include online counseling, virtual health and wellness services, and the CWC podcast. Of special note are CWC programs for special populations, including Black Student Wellness, UndocScholars, LGBTQI+ Resources, and AWARE, an organization of student “mental health ambassadors” who promote mental health awareness through outreach activities on the UF campus and in the greater Gainesville community.
University of Pittsburgh
The holistic approach to student mental health and well-being is on full display at the University of Pittsburgh, who run the majority of their mental health and wellness services through Healthy U, a special program of the Student Affairs department. Important features of the Healthy U program include therapy and psychiatrist sessions and online therapy assistance, the Collegiate Recovery Program for students seeking support for substance abuse issues, the Stress Free Zone, a campus space where students can learn about and practice stress reduction skills, and Pitt Active Minds that provides peer education programs and hosts speakers and connects students with other relevant mental and emotional support services.
Top College Prioritizing Social Health & Equality
Issues of social justice and equality have been around forever. However, current events have thrust these issues into the forefront of public discourse throughout the nation, particularly on America’s college campuses. Faculty, staff, and student demands for change have led to college administrations taking major steps to promote greater social justice at their schools through policy shifts, awareness campaigns, the establishment of social justice offices, and more. Below is a list of some of the more common actions presently being taken by U.S. colleges in their admissions, academic, and social practices to address these social justice and equality issues.
- Minority student resources: Practically all colleges today feature a package of academic, social, and personal support programs and services to students who are members of historically underrepresented populations. These resources typically include recruitment initiatives, counseling, tutoring, mentoring programs, and exclusive scholarship and grant opportunities. One school with particularly robust minority student resources is the University of Washington.
- Inclusion policies: A full set of diversity and inclusion policies is available from virtually all U.S. colleges and universities today. These written policies typically begin with a general declaration of non-discrimination and are followed by specific policies covering topics such as minority rights (ethnic, religious, sexual orientation and identity, disabled students, etc.), student codes of conduct, hate crimes and acts of intolerance, grievance resolution procedures, and others. A good example of a comprehensive and detailed set of diversity, equality, and inclusion policies is provided here by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
- Student organizations and clubs: Student run clubs and organizations are another way college students are taking the reins of exploring social health and equality issues on their campuses. These groups may focus on specific minority groups, like the Rutgers University’s LGBTQA Student Clubs & Organizations, or the more general promotion of social justice and equality, like the Social Justice Club at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay.
- Social justice residence options: A novel though curiously obvious concept for the promotion of social health and equality is living together. That’s the thinking behind social justice college residence programs like the I-House at The College of New Jersey, where students from different ethnic and religious backgrounds can learn and communicate cross-culturally in the intimate confines of a college residential setting.
- Community outreach: College campuses are sometimes thought of as academic bubbles separated from the “real world” problems existing just outside their borders. To counteract issues of insulation from their neighbors, many schools have initiated comprehensive community outreach programs, such as Loyola University Maryland’s Center for Community Service and Justice. These programs often feature service trips to urban and rural areas, outreach events at nearby elementary, middle, and high schools, and civic engagement activities with local community partner organizations.
Here are five colleges leading the way in the campaign for greater social health and equality for their students, faculties, staffs, and communities:
Social justice and equality issues at Brandeis are handled through the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. The ODEI houses a number of reporting offices focusing on specific social justice areas, including the Gender and Sexuality Center, the Intercultural Center, the Office of Equal Opportunity, and the University Ombuds. These offices collaborate with departments throughout the university to provide a range of development, education, training, and coaching services. Brandeis additionally sponsors ‘deis IMPACT!, an annual weeklong series of presentations and events covering important social justice themes.
James Madison University
JMU’s Harrisburg, Virginia campus boasts an exceptionally active and supportive environment in terms of social justice and equality related services and events. Resources of note include DEEP (Diversity Education Empowerment Program) Impact that produces courses, dialogues, cultural events, and outreach designed to celebrate diversity in all forms. JMU’s Office of Access & Inclusion sponsors a variety of social health resources, including middle school outreach services and the Beacon Newsletter, which spotlights diversity and inclusion issues and activities. JMU additionally sponsors an annual Diversity Conference that celebrates diversity through learning opportunities attended by faculty, staff, and members of the local Harrisburg community.
A long history of social activism and the celebration of diversity are proud hallmarks of Spelman College, a historically black all-women’s college located in Atlanta, Georgia. Students at Spelman have the opportunity to join and participate in dozens of organizations that support and advocate for social justice and equality, both on-campus and throughout the world. A unique offering at Spelman is its Social Justice Fellows program, in which numerous opportunities are created for a select group of Spelman women to “make the choice to change the world through social justice advocacy”.
University of Washington
A distinct emphasis is placed on issues of diversity and social justice at the University of Washington, with each of its 18 schools and colleges demonstrating their commitment to diversity through their own advocacy programs and events. Additionally, UW sponsors a wide range of projects, both on-campus and in the surrounding Seattle community, for future students and current students alike. Examples include diversity courses, K-14 student outreach, the Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program, the Q Center (serving students and others of all sexual and gender identities and orientations), the Women’s Center, Undocumented student resources, and many more.
Diversity and social justice are key motivators on the campus of Wheaton College a private evangelical Christian liberal arts college located in Wheaton, Illinois. Diversity events and resources are sponsored through Wheaton’s Kingdom Diversity program, including the Office of Multicultural Development, which provides programs and resources that engage students in conversations about diversity. Additionally, Wheaton College is home to the Multicultural Peace and Justice Collaborative, a research project run by students and faculty, and dedicated to the promotion of peace and social justice.
Top Colleges Prioritizing Nutrition & Food Health
Two things are true when it comes to college students and food, the first of which is stated succinctly in this study from the Journal of Nutrition and Human Health: “Inadequate nutrition affects students’ health and academic success.” And they don’t mean in a good way. The second is that, even when they know better, college students typically make poor food choices. In that same article, the JNHH concluded – also succinctly – that, “Convenience and taste of food were priority.” This is, of course, not news to colleges. What is news is that there is a large and growing trend in schools fighting back against student obesity by adopting campus policies that combine nutrition awareness with convenient and abundant healthy food choices. Some of the steps these colleges are taking include:
- Healthy meal plans: You’d be hard pressed to find a college or university in the U.S. that has yet to begin offering healthy meal plans and alternative food choices at its residence hall cafeterias and other campus venues. And while you can’t force students to pick the healthiest options, many facilities are making informed choices easier by providing menu items with healthy eating labels and icons.
- Campus farmer’s markets: Not all college students live in residence halls or subscribe to campus meal plans, of course. So, colleges are finding ways to make healthy eating more convenient for its students residing off-campus. One growing trend is the campus farmer’s market. Farmer’s markets typically feature fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables, as well as locally-produced packaged foods and baked goods. Some markets offer specials and incentives, like the University of Utah’s Double Your Dollars program, to student customers.
- Nutrition counseling: Another positive trend on college campuses is offering nutrition counseling services to its students. These counseling sessions, typically with registered dieticians, are often available both in-person and online, and are tailored to a student’s unique health issues and nutritional needs (weight management, diabetes, eating disorders, food allergies, sports nutrition, etc.) One college offering exceptional nutrition counseling resources is North Carolina State University.
- Campus smoothie/juice bars: The enemy of all things nutritious for college students is the campus snack bar. Things are changing quickly, however, with many schools replacing, or at least supplementing, traditional snack bars and fast food courts with smoothie shops and juice bars. In some cases, like the Power Bar at Appalachian State University, these locations offer additional health-minded fare, such as salads and vegetarian options, along with their liquid concoctions.
- On-campus healthy eating events: Colleges love sponsoring celebrations and events regardless of the cause or occasion. So, why not an event promoting healthy eating? One particularly noteworthy school-sponsored healthy eating event is Illinois State University’s annual Nutri-Fest, which brings together campus and local community organizations for product exhibits, cooking demonstrations, food samplings, and more.
Below are spotlights on five colleges leading the way on making good nutrition and food health a priority for students:
Emory University provides an excellent example of how colleges can successfully promote nutrition and healthy eating habits on-campus for students, faculty, and staff alike. Dining options include the Dobbs Common Table that accommodates students preferring vegan, vegetarian, halal, kosher, and gluten-free meal plans. Additional food health-related programs and services include individual counseling and education sessions with registered dieticians (free-of-charge to students), a virtual nutrition discussion group, healthy vending machines, the Emory Farmers Market, and Healthy Emory Connect, a mobile app and personalized web platform designed to help users develop and track healthy eating habits.
At Northwestern, the emphasis is on inclusive dining, with vegan, vegetarian, kosher, and halal options available at all dining facilities. Prior to the start of each quarter, students and parents can meet with the campus’s dietician to develop individualized meal plans that take into account food allergies and other dietary restrictions or preferences. Additionally, NU offers a number of programs and services to support its students’ efforts toward food health and nutrition, including the Teaching Kitchen, where participants learn about nutrition through interactive educational opportunities, and the NU Dining’s Sustainability & Wellness Blog, with dozens of useful entries on healthy eating and living.
University of Massachusetts Amherst
UMass Amherst claims to have the most awarded dining program in the nation, and they may be right. The school can certainly boast of being the first SPE Certified University in the U.S., which recognizes its commitment to both nutrition and sustainability in the food items it serves. Through its Dining Sustainability Initiatives program, UMass additionally maintains five campus permaculture gardens, and sources over 100 local venders and farmers to provide organic produce and other fresh and healthy food products for its dining facilities.
You’d be hard pressed to find the terms “Southern cuisine” and “food health” in the same sentence, except maybe regarding Vanderbilt University’s Nashville campus. Vanderbilt students will find a satisfying selection of healthy food choices at all campus dining locations, as well as the Grins Vegetarian Restaurant, which features kosher vegetarian fare and is part of the Vanderbilt Meal Plan. Additional food health resources for Vanderbilt students include personalized nutrition coaching, Vandy Cooks healthy cooking demonstrations and food tastings, and the Nutrition Minute, held at The Rec and at other campus locations, where students can stop by for quick nutrition tips and free food samples. Virtual services include virtual nutrition counseling and the NetNutrition app.
Virginia Tech’s award-winning Dining Services is known for having one of the deepest and most varied menus around. And that includes an impressive selection of options for its more health-minded students, provided through the YES – You’re Eating Smarter Program. YES food items are available at all VT dining centers (both on-campus and off), the Fields & Farm Project in the Owens Food Court, and via DXpress and other to-go services. For students intent on improving their dietary awareness, VT’s Nutrition Services department offers a substantial variety of resources, including nutrition counseling, the Hokie Wellness Nutrition 101 Workshop, the Hokie Wellness Body Matters Project, and many more.
Top Colleges Prioritizing Global Health & Sustainability
Issues regarding sustainability and the environment are big in the global population’s collective consciousness, but nowhere more so than on college campuses, the ultimate settings for learning and awareness. And one fact that college administrations have become keenly aware of is that students today consider a school’s commitment to the environment a major factor in choosing which school they attend. That realization, along with the current highly-competitive nature of college enrollment, has resulted in schools throughout the nation implementing comprehensive sustainability programs that include several or all of the following elements:
- Campus recycling programs: Global health and sustainability begins at home for most colleges in the form of campus recycling programs. A noteworthy example is Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which features a comprehensive program of campus education, student participation, and recycling services focused on achieving its goal of campus-wide zero municipal solid waste.
- Bicycle programs for students: Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation on most college campuses, so it’s not surprising that colleges offer a range of bicycle-related services to their two-wheeling students. Common services include bicycle repair centers, where students can air up their tires and oil their chains, as well as get their bikes fixed. Other useful services include bike sharing (like this program at the University of Richmond) and bike rentals (like the Broncobikes program at Western Michigan University.
- Water refill stations: Another big trend on college campuses is the banning of the sale of plastic water bottles, resulting in the need for readily available sources of water for students to rehydrate. Enter the water refill station – or more accurately – stations. For example, Penn State has installed over 100 water bottle refill stations on its University Park campus.
- Campus gardens: A very popular item at many colleges today is the campus garden. Campus gardens, like those at UC Berkeley, provide students the opportunity learn about and participate in real sustainable practices by growing crops that are often consumed by the students themselves through campus dining services or provided to students and community members experiencing food insecurity issues.
- Green construction: Colleges all over the nation are adopting green construction standards for new buildings and older structure renovations. A good example is Montclair State University, which, like many other schools, has committed to meeting Leadership in Energy and Environmental (LEED) ratings specifications.
Below are five colleges that have made major commitments to putting global health and sustainability beliefs into practice:
The alma mater of Rachel Carson and recipient of more environmental awards than you can shake a stick at, Chatham University has a history of sustainability activism stretching back to the 1800’s. Sustainability remains a keystone value on Chatham’s campus, where a full range of resources are employed toward impressive “green” goals. Programs and activities include: obtaining energy renewable energy sources; the Green Fund, which provides financial support to students implementing green projects on campus; community and campus outreach programs through the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment; and Chatham’s Eden Hall Campus, the first college campus designed to develop and showcase green living solutions.
Colorado State University
Another school that prioritizes environmental and sustainability practices on its campus, Colorado State University places a substantial emphasis on student participation through an impressive number of projects, organizations, and services. Examples include: Eco Leaders, a peer educator program that raises awareness of sustainability issues in residence halls and the Aggie Village Apartments; the Live Green Team, comprised of student and staff volunteers that sponsor numerous environmentally-minded programs; and Eco Actions, where students pledge to live more sustainably. Additionally, CSU boasts over 45 student organizations active in sustainability causes, both on- and off-campus.
Florida Gulf Coast University
Florida Gulf Coast University bills itself as a, “living environmental lab with sustainability at the core of our mission”. FGCU encourages green practices on campus through a wide range of programs, services, and activities involving students, faculty, staff, and members of the surrounding Fort Myers community. Examples include participation in Sustainability Service Learning projects, and the education and community outreach programs sponsored by the Center for Environmental Sustainability Education. Another noteworthy program at FGCU is Green Events that offers guidelines for making – and formally certifies – catered events as ecologically-friendly.
Arizona State University Tempe
In the postsecondary academic world, ASU can rightly be described as a true pioneer in the areas of sustainability awareness and practice. ASU’s commitment to sustainability is impressive, encompassing dozens of projects and initiatives in place throughout its Tempe campus and beyond. These efforts include commitments to energy consumption reduction, the use of renewable energy sources, zero solid waste, water conservation, sustainable transportation and food services, and LEED Silver Certification for all new construction. Student engagement is encouraged through membership in numerous campus sustainability clubs and organizations, such as Green Greeks, the Green Light Solutions Foundation, and the Campus Student Sustainability Initiatives program.
University of Vermont
Vermont’s is known as the Green Mountain State, an apt nickname for a place so abundant in natural beauty and resources. Sustainability and environmental stewardship, thus, come naturally at the University of Vermont. UVM sustainability efforts include its commitments to neutralize campus greenhouse gas emissions and LEED standards in new construction and building renovations. UVM has also ended new direct investment in fossil fuels and committed to total fossil fuel divestment by July 2023. Other environmentally-minded activities include an emphasis on pedestrian and bike transportation, the elimination of the on-campus sale of bottled water, and UVM’s Sustainable Learning Community student residences.