Demand rises, but colleges cut counselor positions

Like many Minnesota State Colleges and Universities schools facing budget trouble, Ridgewater College in west central Minnesota is planning to lay off staff.

In addition to a theater instructor and a carpentry instructor, the lay offs will affect two counselors. That will cut the counseling staff in half, leaving one counselor on each of the college's campuses in Willmar and Hutchinson.

Ridgewater spokesman Sam Bowen said the cuts are part of the administration's response to a projected $3 million budget deficit over the next two years.

"We've not eliminated counseling," Bowen said. "We simply had to reduce the staff to help us reallocate resources to meet student resources in tough budget times."

A recent statewide survey shows 38 percent of community college students suffer some sort of mental health condition. That's 7 percent more students than Minnesota's four-year universities.

But even as demand for mental health services at Minnesota community colleges has risen, the number of counselors has gone down, as officials try to cope with state budget pressures.

Despite the reductions, college officials say they'll still be able to offer quality academic, career and mental health counseling. But some worry students won't get the care they need.

At Ridgewater College, officials are working to ensure anyone who needs help will get it, whether that's on campus or at a mental health provider of campus.

As with most Minnesota community colleges, Ridgewater's counselors have a number of duties, from mental health therapy, to academic and career counseling.

The Ridgewater councilor layoffs represent a trend toward reducing counseling staff at community colleges throughout the MnSCU system.

MnSCU figures show that in 2001, the state's 25 community colleges had about 120 counselors.

A decade later the number has fallen to 100. And that's before the cuts that Ridgewater and other schools have planned.

That's something counselor Kevin Lindstrom has seen first hand.

"When I started at Anoka Technical College in 1990, there were six counselors," Lindstrom said. "Today, I am the remaining counselor. There is one counselor on campus for a head count over the course of the year that's in the neighborhood of 3,000."

Lindstrom is on leave to work with the union representing the state's community college counselors. While he's away, another counselor is filling his position.

MnSCU system officials say cutting counseling positions through layoffs and attrition is unfortunate, but necessary in this tough budget environment.

"The commitment to providing a healthy environment including mental health is undiminished in this system," said Scott Olson, MnSCU's interim vice chancellor for academic and students affairs. "But we're forced to try to find new and different ways to deliver that."

Olson said MnSCU is starting to view the challenge of delivering counseling to students as a campus wide effort.

"Counseling centers are one way to do that," he said. "But it's not the only way. So we're also working with faculty, working with other professionals on campus so that you have a more holistic approach."

Lindstrom, the counselor and faculty union representative, is no fan of spreading those duties throughout a college's staff, especially when it comes to watching for signs that students need mental health care.

"To imply that someone else, no matter how much training they might have had in-house to recognize it, can also equally deal with it I don't think is fair," he said.

MnSCU officials say it's up to each of their 20 community colleges to determine the appropriate size of their counseling staff.

A 2009 report from MnSCU recommended using a national standard that recommends one counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students. That's a standard that only a handful of all Minnesota colleges now have the staff to meet.

It's not likely one that many more community colleges will be able to achieve, as the state grapples with a projected budget deficit of more than $6 billion.

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