The national average ratio of college counselors to students is 1-to-1,600, showing a possible shortage in staff for an increasing amount of students who require professional counseling, according to a study published by the International Association of Counseling Services, Inc. (IACS).
IACS, an international association which accredits college and university counseling services, reports that the standard for staff-to-student ratio is one professional staff member (excluding trainees) to every 1,000 to 1,500 students.
Elie Axelroth, head of counseling at Cal Poly, said the university “clearly does not have enough counselors,” but most other California State Universities don’t meet that standard either because of a combination of reasons.
“I think it’s partly budget, and I think it’s also partly a priorities issue,” Axelroth said. “I think in the last several years, administrators in many universities are seeing the value in counseling services in terms of student success and potential.”
The IACS study also reported that 91 percent of counseling directors nationally felt the number of students with severe psychological problems was increasing.
Axelroth, who has been at Cal Poly since 1984, said she felt this was true for many different reasons, including returning veterans and students who may not have been able to attend school in the past but are now able to due to stabilizing medication.
“Of course we know that students are often dealing with social anxiety, some concerns about who they are in the world and they may have some career questions, issues with their parents, dealing with conflict,” Axelroth said. “This is a time in students’ lives, the age range, (when) we would expect to see a psychotic break. We would expect to see the onset of major depression, anxiety disorders.”
With more students needing counseling and less counselors to provide it, there comes an influx of appointments set far in advance. The IACS website said some problems with a larger student-to-counselor ratio are increasing waiting lists and more difficulty helping students who are experiencing more severe psychological issues.
Axelroth said this was true at Cal Poly, with some students having to wait two weeks before being seen by a counselor.
“In a 10-week quarter, two weeks time is a long time,” Axelroth said. “And students are coming in because they’re having trouble in school, so that’s too long to wait. And yet, we have so many students coming in in crisis, it’s just how we have to manage it.”
Axelroth said Counseling Services does provide walk-in services from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for students who need to be seen right away. Though these interactions are preliminary before a scheduled meeting, Axelroth said they provide students access to counselors sooner.
“They’re seen for 15 or 20 minutes, and we do a quick assessment for their safety and whether or not we think we can meet their needs,” Axelroth said. “And then if we feel we can be helpful, we schedule … an initial (meeting) with a counselor. We feel much better about our being able to assess students in a timely manner in that way.”
Still, this next scheduled meeting usually occurs two weeks in the future unless the student is at a severely high risk. Then, they will just get them in, Axelroth said.
For students needing more health services, there are other counseling services on campus, namely the peer health group, Peers Understanding Listening Speaking Educating (PULSE). PULSE is a group of student leaders who promote healthy lifestyle choices, provide confidential consultations, large and small group presentations and wellness information and events.
Katie Kelly, a biological sciences junior and member of the PULSE team E.R.O.S., which focuses on safer sex, sexual assault, birth control and STI-related issues, said the Counseling Services’ long wait list may be a disservice to some students, but they provide a more focused look at student issues than PULSE.
“I have heard a lot about how sometimes it takes a long time to get an appointment, so that may be detrimental to some students,” Kelly said. “We are open every weekday, and there is always going to be someone there to at least assist the students and get them back on track as to what they need and who can help best.”
Clare Farrington, a psychology sophomore and member of the Thoughtful Lifestyle Choices (TLC) team, which focuses on sleep, drugs and alcohol, dating violence and time and stress management issues, said she felt a lower student-counselor ratio was unrealistic.
“Cal Poly’s Counseling Center does do a good job at identifying which issues are most common for students and providing information about counseling groups or one-on-one counseling for those common issues,” Farrington said. “I understand that having more resources or more opportunities for one-on-one involvement in the students’ lives to identify and support the nuances of these common issues would be beneficial to many students, but I think that it is an unrealistic goal for an institution that is built to provide the most amount of help for the most amount of people.”
Another problem with the statistic may lie in the amount of students actually seeking counseling. The IACS study reported that 10.8 percent of enrolled students sought counseling in 2010.
Axelroth said the number of Cal Poly students seeking counseling is lower at 4 percent.
“If we look at statistics across the country, some counseling centers are seeing up to 10 percent, but we also know that men are less likely to use counseling services,” Axelroth said. “So, since we have more men at Cal Poly than women, and that’s unusual across the country; we would expect we would be seeing 8 percent. And, if we had the counselors, I feel absolutely certain we would be seeing more students.”
Renee Okholm, a kinesiology senior and TLC team member said some students may be apprehensive about attending counseling sessions.
“I believe a lot of students are shy about getting the help they need, so PULSE is offered for peer-to-peer contact and to help take students upstairs for higher counseling,” Okholm said.
Farrington said she thought more students should take advantage of both the Counseling Services’ student groups and PULSE’s wide variety of resources.
“As a peer counselor and psychology major myself, I love to help students as much as I can by providing them with all the resources I can offer as well as accessible resources outside of campus,” Farrington said.
Though Cal Poly may lack in staff, Axelroth said Counseling Services has a full-time psychiatrist to make medicine prescriptions if needed, and there is help for students suffering from depression.
“Another message that we try to deliver to the campus frequently is that both depression and anxiety are very treatable with a combination of counseling and sometimes medication,” Axelroth said.
Farrington said she felt Cal Poly’s Health Services provide needed help to students, though they may lack in some ways.
“Overall, I think that if a student needs assistance for any reason the Health Center will be able to provide for them by either assisting them within our institution or by leading them to a place that can,” Farrington said.