Several staff members at the Hunter College Office of Advising left during the pandemic and their positions remain unfilled, said Alex Rosero, the office’s assistant director. The increased workload for him and his coworkers, in addition to the stress of living and working during a pandemic, has been intense. And for students, the situation has meant fewer advisors are available to serve their needs.
Victoria O’Shea, an ASAP student advisor at Queensborough Community College, has seen how students suffer from long wait times to see advisors.
“It’s difficult to get a timely appointment,” Rosero told Clarion, talking about how a smaller staff has resulted in decreased student services. “There’s a finite number of appointments.”
This is an all-too-common tale around CUNY. Governor Kathy Hochul’s Executive Budget already includes a major part of the PSC-backed landmark bill, the New Deal for CUNY: the creation of new full-time faculty positions. For the PSC and for student activists, this is a partial victory. The union’s bill also calls for the hiring of new full-time counselors and advisors, which CUNY students desperately need.
“I see many students come to campus believing that a high school model of having a guidance counselor and psychological support will be available in college. They are often shocked, confused and overwhelmed when they discover the support is not the same,” said Cindy Bink, the PSC chapter chair for higher education officers. “While many of our campuses offer some staffing, it is not enough. The process for obtaining financial aid is complicated and extremely bureaucratic. One mistake can cost a student their tuition and their academic future. Students need help navigating through college and understanding the rigor of academic life so that they can succeed.”
Bink, the director of counseling at City Tech, stressed that mental health counselors play a vital role for students. “Without permanent ongoing support, our students can become lost and either fail out or drop out. Either way, it is a loss for CUNY and New York City,” she told Clarion.
“Part-time employees are not the answer. We need to form a bond with students over the course of their enrollment. This is what permanent full-time academic advisors, financial aid advisors and mental health professionals can accomplish. With changes in remote learning and returning to campus, our students need more, not less. If we want our enrollment to be maintained or rise, the supports for students need to be there,” said Bink.
Students and PSC activists have highlighted this problem throughout the pandemic. In October 2021, Clarion reported that the university improved its mental health professionals-to-student ratio from 1:2,595 to 1:1,621, by hiring 54 part-time and nine full-time clinical workers, according to Denise Maybank, CUNY’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management, who testified before New York City Council. However, the improved ratio was “still far from the 1:1,500 ratio recommended by the International Accreditation of Counseling Services (IACS),” Clarion reported, adding that the hiring was a temporary fix because the “clinicians were hired with federal stimulus money, and as Maybank explained, the resources [were] ‘time-limited.’”
A union statement said that the New Deal for CUNY legislation “would result in $79 million in new funding for CUNY, specifically to hire new academic advisors and mental health counselors” and impose “legally-mandated minimum staff-to-student ratios.” The legislation adds that “caseloads for advisors and counselors are outrageously high,” with some workers expected to meet with 128 [students] in a single week, in addition to other work duties.
MENTAL HEALTH FUNDING
As state lawmakers were in the final stages of the budget negotiations with the governor, the PSC pushed for the inclusion of more mental health and academic advisors in CUNY’s budget allocation. And many PSC members are sharing stories of how bad the situation is. Some say that mental health and advising staff are stretched so thin that they don’t have time to use the bathroom, let alone devote enough time to cases. Many counselors have told the union about students who are dealing with highly traumatic issues, and the university does not have enough staff to serve these students. The PSC is doing everything it can to ensure that there’s funding for this increased hiring.
Lynn Kaplan, associate director at the Baruch College Counseling Center, noted that with only four full-time, permanent mental health counselors, the center must seek new temporary and part-time workers to fill in the gaps. “This puts us in the position of constantly recruiting, hiring, onboarding and training new counselors and it is not a sustainable model to support Baruch students suffering from mental health issues,” she said. “Based on a recent student survey that we conducted in Spring 2021, we know that about 45% of Baruch students who responded to the survey suffer from major to moderate depression, 37% met criteria for anxiety disorder and 13% reported suicidal ideation over the past year.”
Lynn Kaplan, associate director at the Baruch College Counseling Center, said current staffing levels don’t meet students’ needs.
Kaplan believes that the current staffing levels simply cannot address these problems. “Without enough staff, we are put in the position of referring out many students for mental health support,” she said. “This is not an effective solution because many students don’t have insurance; many students cannot use their insurance due to mental health stigma. And because we are in a mental health crisis, many outpatient clinics are full and don’t have any openings. We simply don’t have the staffing to sufficiently meet the growing mental health needs of the Baruch students.”
Victoria O’Shea, an ASAP student advisor at Queensborough Community College, recalled how in October she tried to get immediate counseling for two students who had reported being sexually assaulted. O’Shea was informed by the director of counseling that all the campus counselors were booked solid until the end of the Fall semester.
“Since both students had insurance and were able to use it, I worked with them to find appropriate referrals,” O’Shea said. “However, given the influx of people needing counseling, this too proved difficult. One student was unable to find a therapist to help her work through her trauma.”
O’Shea told Clarion about another student who was suicidal and whose insurance (through her parents) did not cover mental health counseling. “Her only option was to get counseling secretly through the college,” O’Shea said. “I again contacted our director of counseling and she stated that she was willing to work outside of her hours in order to assist this student.”
For O’Shea, this is a dire situation. “Without having enough staff, such as advisors and counselors on our campuses, not only are we doing a disservice to our students – and CUNY is losing money – we are also putting lives in jeopardy,” she said.
Brett Costello, a junior majoring in biology at Hunter College, said that as a student on the autism spectrum, mental health services are as essential to his education as his classes. “There are probably quite a few students at CUNY that have autism,” he said. “It’s like a different way of thinking if you’re autistic. I think we would have better academic outcomes if we can get some of these students the help they need.”
According to CUNY advocates, stories like these are why the State Legislature must pass the New Deal for CUNY and create funds for more advisors and counselors. Cory Provost, the interim chairperson of the CUNY University Student Senate, spoke about the need for these services at a recent forum, stating that they’re especially needed now more than ever as many students transition back to in-person education.
“What the pandemic has revealed [is that] so many people need aid, so many people need resources,” he said. “Having access to mental health counselors is going to be critical.”