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Opinion | Michigan community colleges need funding for mental health services

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a light on the mental health challenges that many face, and policymakers are listening. In July, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the 2022-23 state budget, which included unprecedented increases in funding for school-based mental health programs. However, these funding mechanisms do not address the mental health care need that exists at community colleges.

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Alex Ammann is a research assistant on the Mental Health Improvement through Community Colleges team at the University of Michigan. (Courtesy photo)

While mental health services at four-year universities are expected and generally well-established, this is not always the case at two-year colleges. Only 70 percent of community colleges nationally offer any mental health counseling, and few community college counselors are responsible solely for providing mental health counseling. Similar to high school guidance counselors, they often split their time between mental health counseling and other responsibilities, including administrative, academic advising, or career counseling. 

Community colleges have a student to counselor ratio of almost double that of four-year institutions, which means that students may have to wait longer to access on-campus counselors, may have fewer accessible appointment times and/or less access to counselors that reflect their personal demographics or can cater to their specific needs.

This limited access to care is especially noteworthy as community college students likely have a higher need for mental health services than four-year college students. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation are all more frequent in community college students. Two-year college students are almost 45 percent more likely to attempt suicide than four-year college students, a statistic that is even more compelling given that suicide is the second leading cause of death in college-aged individuals.

Four-year universities most frequently enroll what education spheres call "traditional students:” full time students straight out of high school with no dependents and no full time job. These students are more likely to hold more privileged identities: white, able-bodied, cisgender students from middle- or high-income families. Community colleges, on the other hand, tend to more frequently serve marginalized students, including those from racial or ethnic minority groups and low-income families, as well as first generation college students. Many are caring for family members while attending school or are balancing responsibilities beyond those of a “traditional student.”

Community colleges often have less resources to support their students due to a lack of funding.

The Center for American Progress found that community colleges in Michigan receive an average of $8,179 less per student in annual education revenue than Michigan’s public four-year colleges. With more state and federal funding and higher tuition rates, four-year colleges have more flexibility to provide crucial student services, including mental health services. Community colleges do not have the same luxury. 

On top of this, students who can afford four-year college tuition often come from families with higher median incomes, and are consequently more likely to be able to afford mental health care outside of school than students who attend community college. 

For example, Wayne County Community College District’s median annual family income is $25,400, while Wayne State University, located just 2.5 miles away in Detroit, has a median family income of $58,600. Thus, community college students are both less likely to find mental health care at their school, and less likely to have the finances to access that care outside of school.

The most important step in removing the barriers to mental health care for community college students is to increase funding to two-year institutions and those serving larger proportions of historically underserved students, and to support research dedicated to examining community college mental health. Both community colleges themselves, and organizations such as the JED Foundation and the American College Counseling Association have helped to shine a light on the critical need of mental health infrastructure at community colleges. 

Additionally, a Michigan-specific burgeoning research group, the Mental Health Improvement through Community Colleges team at the University of Michigan, is focusing on mental health needs at Michigan community colleges. This research is crucial for identifying effective ways to improve the availability and accessibility of mental health resources for community college students.

With mental health conditions further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are securely in the middle of a mental health crisis. It is time to level the playing field and ensure community college students are receiving the mental health resources and support they need.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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