Community Voices: State’s proposed cuts to funding and student fees would have big impact on UMN mental health services

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When it comes to mental health, it comes as no surprise that university students experience intense levels of stress and subsequent mental health issues like depression and anxiety. As a college student myself, gathering the courage to access the mental health services on campus was a difficult process for me. It was something I put off for a long time. I’m sure there are a lot of students who can relate. There are a lot of theoretical services provided by college institutions, but actually accessing proper mental health care can be challenging – especially when that access is already limited and may soon be reduced due to state funding cuts.

Funding for Boynton Mental Health services at the University of Minnesota largely comes from student services fees. This means that only University of Minnesota students who are enrolled full-time, studying for a degree, and paying the student services fee are able to access this resource. As a student who is not currently enrolled full-time on the University of Minnesota campus – and subsequently not paying the $432.18 student services see – I am ineligible to receive care from the mental health clinic at Boynton. Clearly, the fact that I am not enrolled full-time on campus does not mean that mental health issues do not exist for me (or students in similar situations). These barriers to mental health care are unacceptable. Unfortunately, these barriers to mental health care may soon become much worse.

The University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus recently celebrated the addition of six full-time equivalent mental health counselors as a victory for student mental health care. These counselors are a much needed addition, but the problem of inaccessible mental health care persists. The International Association of Counseling Services recommends one full-time counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students. Even after the addition of six staff members, the university has a ratio of one therapist to 1421 students, which was calculated based on spring 2016 student enrollment. While the ratio is currently in the acceptable range, cutting funding for these resources by making student services fees optional would be problematic not only for students hoping to access these services, but also for the professionals providing care.

Proposed state legislation prohibiting mandatory student fees would make the already problematic university mental health care model even worse. Since approximately $130 of a student’s $432.18 student services fee is allotted for funding of Boynton Mental Health Services, a significant amount of funding for this resource would be lost if student services fees were made optional for full-time students. With this loss of funding, two outcomes may occur. First, Boynton Health Services may have to reduce the number of staff due to budget cuts, further making mental health care accessible. Second, the university will be forced to replace these lost funds by increasing tuition. Either way, students will lose.

This dire situation is even more frustrating when we consider the state of Minnesota’s $1.65 billion budget surplus. The university has requested an additional $147.2 million over the next two years. But the recent higher education omnibus bill only included $18.6 million for UMN. This decrease in funding by the state is part of a decades-long national trend of states gradually investing less in their public colleges and universities and placing more of the financial burden on students and their families.

In the 1970s, states covered approximately 75 percent of public universities’ funding. As of 2012, state funding made up just 23 percent of university revenues, while tuition made up 25 percent of university revenue. In other words, in 1978 the state of Minnesota’s funding for higher education was at its peak, spending $15.08 of every $1,000 on higher education; in 2011, the state spent just $6.27 per $1,000 on higher education. In 2008, a time of extreme economic crisis, the state of Minnesota spent 14.8 percent more per student, adjusted for inflation, than it did on students in 2016. Even more alarming: since 1973, the average inflation-adjusted public college tuition rate has grown by 274 percent, while, the median household income for Americans has grown by only 7 percent. This means that states are spending less on students, while students and their families are expected to spend a greater percentage of their family income on tuition than ever before.

Such extreme financial pressure on families and students, combined with the usual stresses of college life and a severe lack of mental health care creates a dangerously stressful game. As the burden on students increases, so do instances of stress and mental health issues. By making student services fees optional, mental health resources, and the health of university students, is at risk. Investing in students and resources that provide support for their mental health is a no-brainer. Paying for student services fees, and providing accessible mental health care for students, should not be optional. However, universities shouldn’t place the majority of this funding burden on students. The state of Minnesota has the resources to invest more in their students. It’s time they do so.

This Community Voices feature is published in partnership with HECUA’s Making Media, Making Change; Inequality in America and Environmental Sustainability programs.

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