Photo illustration of protest signs Photo illustration of protest signs

Photo illustration by Ali Harford.


The Trouble with Community College Resources

They face the same mental-health challenges as their four-year peers. But the support they receive varies across the country — from a complete cut of on-campus services to a multimillion-dollar pledge of support.

For Evelina Demchenko, supporting her fellow students’ well-being serves as the most important part of her job. But last year, as the treasurer of the Student Government Association at the Lancaster campus branch of Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), a crisis challenged her ability to do that. HACC, the biggest community college system in Pennsylvania, acknowledged its intent to cut all on-campus mental-health services, later opting to refer students to a private health-care provider in the area. A budget shortfall of $2.7 million prompted the decision, and the college needed to make a tough choice, Demchenko says.

“The first reaction was disappointment,” says Demchenko, a student who works in the association’s small office in the branch campus’ headquarters, a long, low, brick building. “Everyone who found out had a different response, depending on how much they used the services.”

But scrolling through thousands of apps in search of technological intervention that suits your needs sounds less than fun. For suggestions, students can ask health-service staff for app intel. To make it easier for students, some schools — Syracuse University, Pepperdine University, and the University of Missouri — created partnerships with the health app, Sanvello, providing students, faculty, and staff free access to their premium service. The app serves approximately 1,700 students on the Syracuse University campus says Gwyneth Esty-Kendall, health promotion specialist at Syracuse University.

After HACC President John J. Sygielski’s announcement in October 2019, students immediately demanded that HACC restore services. Others decried the limited information about the decision provided by the system’s administration. A group of students across campuses — in one case brandishing a bright-red sign listing “FACTS … OF MENTAL ILLNESSES” — held a brief sit-in to challenge officials over the cut.

Students protest cuts to campus mental health resources

From left: Marshall Everett, Ed Peters, and Sabrina Herb protest the cuts to campus mental-health services at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, on Oct. 23, 2019. Photo by Aneri Pattani/Spotlight PA.

Demchenko says that although she didn’t use the mental-health services, she understood the students’ concerns. Some couldn’t afford to drive 30 minutes off-campus for an appointment. Or they lacked reliable transportation. “I want college to be a good experience for everyone,” she says. “I do feel for those people.”

Other state colleges, and in particular community colleges, share HACC’s struggle to fund on-campus, mental-health counselors — or fund other support services such as food banks, higher education experts say. “The proportion of state funding has dropped dramatically over the past 10 years,” says Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based National Skills Coalition, a labor-policy advocacy group. Several experts told The 61% Project that, following the Great Recession, when the housing bubble burst, community colleges and school systems around the United States found it difficult to fund a range of programs. This included mental-health programming, as a result of shrinking budgets and falling enrollments. Lauren Walizer, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, echoes that observation, saying that broadly, support services at community colleges in cash-strapped systems like HACC are on the chopping block. And mental-health programming is a part of that.

One 2016 study, produced by the Wisconsin Hope Lab, the nation’s first research lab aimed at improving equitable outcomes in post-secondary education, located in Philadelphia, found that 49% of those students had at least one symptom of a mental-health condition, with depression and anxiety being the most common. At the same time, community college budgets are generally much smaller than their four-year counterparts, and since a peak in 2010, enrollment at community colleges around the U.S. has declined each fall as of 2017, according to a 2019 report from the American Association of Community Colleges .

Meanwhile, per a report from the Century Foundation, a New York City-based think tank, the per pupil operating expenditures for four-year private research sector schools was $71,597 in 2013. At four-year public bachelor’s sector schools, the operating expenditures were pegged at $39,793 per pupil. In the public community college sector, those expenditures were listed at just $14,090. “My experience from working with community colleges,” Duke-Benfield says, “is the things that tend to be cut are the support services that students need.”

In terms of mental health, specifically, students might not have health insurance that covers private counseling, Duke-Benfield says. That’s a particular issue for community colleges with more non-traditional students and low-income students than four-year institutions, she says. According to a study published by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, reflecting statistics from 2012, about 14% of non-traditional students nationally are enrolled in community colleges. Non-traditional students can include working adults, parents, and veterans. A Pew Research Center report released last year found that the share of dependent students in poverty had doubled at community colleges from 1996 to 2016 — from 13% to 27%.

“My experience from working with community colleges is the things that tend to be cut are the support services that students need.”

Outsourcing mental-health counseling due to budget constraints can be difficult, says Brian Mitra, an expert on community colleges at The Jed Foundation, a suicide-prevention organization. Mitra also serves as the dean of student affairs at Kingsborough Community College and as the community college representative for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ Region II and the Community College Division Board. He says critical to that process is the need for college officials to explain the outsourcing decision to students. “Transparency and communication,” he says, mean a lot when making tough decisions, like HACC’s. And it’s important to keep in mind the pressures community college systems face, he says, including enrollment declines. Per the 2019 AACC report, between 2010 and 2017, the enrollment rate at community colleges dropped by 1 million students nationally.

But HACC’s decision last year was an extreme case, experts say. It’s not as if every community college in the country with a lack of significant spikes in state funding will cut all mental-health programming, they say, adding that HACC appears to be an outlier, and that other colleges haven’t followed suit. There has been some civil litigation, including against Iowa State University, in which families sue institutions over a lack of mental-health services, after a student dies by suicide, Kruger says. Those concerns, and the threat of lawsuits, limit the number of schools that cut all on-campus mental-health counseling like HACC, he says.

Harrisburg Area Community College

Harrisburg Area Community College cut its on-campus mental-health counseling in fall 2019. Students around the college system, including at the Lancaster HACC branch campus, erupted in anger after the decision. The Lancaster campus’ main building is pictured above.

The HACC decision, though, does demonstrate the depth and the seriousness of the issue. It also highlights the dramatic range of approaches to mental-health counseling at community colleges around the country. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom last year pledged to add $5.3 million to the state budget to support mental-health services run by the state’s community college system About $1.5 million of that $5.3 million would go to miscellaneous initiatives such as food banks.

But not every state is like California, Mitra says. His school, Kingsborough, which is a part of the City University of New York system, prioritizes mental-health services thanks to a vocal student body who expressed a need to provide counseling. “CUNY students said mental health is something they need more resources at, but what about other institutions?” Mitra says. “I’ve seen where it may just be one person” employed at a counseling center.

Some community college programs have systems in place through which students have access to on-campus counselors, but can be referred to off-campus providers. Other community colleges, like in Virginia, are required to send students off campus.

“VCCS colleges shall maintain a staff of academic counselors and/or advisors to assist students in making decisions regarding career, educational, and personal/social plans. VCCS colleges do not provide mental-health services. However, qualified staff may provide initial assessments and referrals to appropriate mental-health services when necessary,” reads the Virginia Community College Policies, which was recently cited in a petition launched by a Northern Virginia Community College student taking aim at the state’s General Assembly, hoping to enact reform.

As Mitra points out, not every system can mirror CUNY’s priority in mental health. The level of support for counseling depends campus to campus, network to network, especially in less-populated portions of the U.S., Mitra says. Duke-Benfield, of the National Skills Coalition, says Virginia has a unique system for community colleges that can be difficult to navigate for some students, as the state requires that students visit providers off-campus. “That’s rough,” Duke-Benfield says, “when you think about our community mental-health system, if there is even a community mental-health system? … That system tends to be pretty overloaded.”

The decision presented for college administrations is whether officials think they should, or can, address acute student mental-health needs on campus, or if they want to shuffle students off to community providers where there might be a two-month wait to see a counselor, she says. “We’re in an unfortunate economic and fiscal environment,” Duke-Benfield says. “There’s valid criticism of policies like Virginia’s. ... It is pretty unrealistic that, unless you’re in a community with a really rich mental-health system, students are going to be as readily served as they might’ve been if the services were on campus.” Beyond that, it’s difficult to navigate community health-care systems, she says. It could include driving far off campus in an area without public transportation.

At HACC, Demchenko says, the college still offers to pay for up to three sessions of face-to-face, phone, or virtual, mental-health sessions. But working with an off-campus, health-care provider could force students to find ways to even get off campus and find a way to cover those costs. Plans like that disadvantage low-income students, who disproportionately suffer when support services are cut, Walizer says. For example, she says that in rural areas, when school officials say the closest food bank is 10 miles away, low-income students without access to a car can’t get there. If that school had a food bank on campus, that wouldn’t be the case, Walizer says.

“It is pretty unrealistic that, unless you’re in a community with a really rich mental-health system, students are going to be as readily served as they might’ve been if the services were on campus.”

“Sharing costs,” she says, might be the way to go. “That would be a really efficient” method of addressing a decline in the number of support services offered at a college, if several schools partnered together, Walizer says. And Kruger says there are new approaches being tested in which lower-funded community colleges promote virtual counseling and online programs, among other things. Kruger also stressed that it’s not common for community colleges, or community college systems, to entirely eliminate mental-health counseling. “The actions that Harrisburg took ... are pretty unusual, and not widespread,” Kruger says.

Michael Votano, a student graduating from HACC in May, says there was widespread indignation after Spotlight PA, an investigative news outlet, broke news of the cut before HACC administrators announced it. He says he thinks HACC only set up a partnership with local mental-health provider Mazzitti & Sullivan to offer some free off-campus services to students to fend off criticism. In a statement at the time, HACC wrote that its communication on the matter “included some missteps” and pledged to “not repeat these mistakes.”

To Demchenko, HACC’s commitment to fund some off-campus counseling trips provided a good step for the system to take, despite the issues it caused. She says she cares about the students, and what they need matters most. “I want everybody to be happy on campus,” Demchenko says.

That could be difficult to accomplish, though, if taking into consideration an editorial piece published January 2020 by the HACC Lancaster branch campus’ online student news organization, the Live Wire. Citing the mental-health cut at HACC, Votano, as the wire’s editor-in-chief, wrote “because of glaring imprudence and a contemptible lack of communication, HACC was forced to endure a cannonade of criticism from countless sources.” The piece ended with this comparison: “For HACC, central Pennsylvania’s largest-and most troubled-community college, 2019 will almost certainly be remembered as an annus horribilis, much like 1992 was for Queen Elizabeth II and Britain as a whole.”

Despite that editorial, in an interview, Votano says some students had forgotten about the mental-health cut by the start of the spring 2020 semester, and some of the outrage dissipated. But, he says, for those who used the on-campus counseling, concerns remained. “There’s obviously some acute anger that had arisen from that decision that they made,” Votano says.


The Steve Fund, the nation's only organization focused on supporting the mental health and emotional well-being of young people of color, published a report on possible ways to better address mental health among community college students. To conenct 24/7 with a trained counselor text STEVE to 741741.

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