“When you have tighter resources and a smaller staff, you have to spend the bulk of your time on one-on-one counseling and clinical services. Starting new programs is much more of a challenge,” said Micky Sharma, who oversees counseling at Ohio State University.
Community colleges, in particular, have very few resources dedicated to counseling services. Counselors often wear multiple hats, simultaneously providing students with psychological, career, and academic counseling. Close to 18 percent of community colleges provide no mental-health counseling at all.
Community colleges serve high numbers of part-time and nontraditional students, many of whom have outside jobs and families. “They may need more support than the typical student,” said Jennifer Ruark, who edited a recent Chronicle of Higher Education series on college mental-health services, “but it’s harder for them to get it.”
So what can counseling centers that are already strapped for cash do to help students make a smooth transition from college to real life?
A few universities offer students insurance plans that extend a few months beyond graduation. At New York University, for example, students can purchase continued coverage for up to 90 days after they’ve gotten their diplomas.
But the solution might be simpler than that. Students like Paniagua would likely benefit from just starting to think about these issues, and planning for their future care, before they’re out on their own. School counselors could work with graduating seniors to find therapists in their new cities, develop plans for how to pay for treatment, and advise them on managing the stress that comes with leaving college.
Many universities already help students transition from one mental-health-care provider to another. Those students just typically aren’t seniors getting ready to graduate. At the University of Michigan, each student is typically allotted five free sessions with a school counselor before the school refers him out to a provider in the community. The school employs two full-time consultants to help students connect with therapists in the Ann Arbor area and figure out how to pay for their care. On its website, UM Counseling and Psychological Services features detailed video explanations of how to find providers—both with and without health insurance.
It wouldn’t take much for colleges to adapt these kinds of resources to the needs of graduating seniors. Sharma suggested that college counseling centers also hold workshops on the post-graduation transition.
“In the final year of college, you have the added pressure of, ‘where do I go?’ ‘what is this next step going to be like?’ We need to make sure students have the right skill set,” Sharma said.
At Ohio State, Sharma oversees one of the largest college counseling centers in the country. The school’s counseling services include 43 full-time staff members and more than 20 graduate-student trainees. When I asked Sharma how he responds to the growing contingent calling college-educated millennials “snowflakes,” and dismissing programs like his as unnecessary, he said he argues that the world has changed.
“There are added stressors and pressures on college students. The more we’re helping students to manage stress, the better,” he said. “These are the future world leaders—why not give them these tools they need in college?”
Even better: Why not give them the tools they need when they leave?