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Optional Student Services Fees Harm Students’ Mental Health

rows of empty wooden chairs look out onto a blackboard

HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. This semester, students in our Inequality in America, Art for Social Change, and Making Media, Making Change programs are writing a series of blog posts on a topic of their choosing. We asked Inequality in America students to consider a theory or reading that intersects with their lived experience. Making Media, Making Change and Art for Social Change students will offer a window into their creative processes, and describe how what they are learning guides their art. Over the next few months we’ll publish a number of these powerful reflections from our students. Please share them widely! You can find all of the posts by searching the HECUA classrooms category on our blog.

Optional Student Service Fees Harms Student Mental Health

by Erin Adams, HECUA Inequality in America Student

Admitting you have a problem is hard.  Asking for help is harder.  Figuring out where to find that help is even more challenging.  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, I find that I’m facing mental health issues and finding ways to deal with them.  Finally 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, on campus or otherwise.

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 Fee, 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). Though I am still able to receive primary medical care, 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.  While these counselors are a much needed addition, 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 of Minnesota as a ratio of one therapist to 1421 students, which was calculated based on Spring 2016 student enrollment. While this 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. The House and the Senate are suggesting $22 million and $29.6 million respectively.  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 1970’s, states covered approximately 75% of public universities’ funding.  As of 2012, state funding made up just 23% of university revenues, while tuition made up 25% 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% more per student, adjusted for inflation, than it did on students in 2016. Even more terrifying: since 1973, the average inflation-adjusted public college tuition rate has grown by 274%, while, the median household income for Americans has grown by only 7%.  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.

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