Colleges are short of counselors

In wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, a state report urges larger mental health staffs at state schools.

By Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer
Published February 28, 2008

TAMPA - Ten of Florida's 11 public universities need more mental health counselors to serve their growing student bodies, with the University of South Florida among the most understaffed, according to a new Board of Governors report commissioned in the wake of last year's Virginia Tech shooting massacre.

All but tiny New College in Sarasota have higher-than-recommended student-to-counselor ratios, the board's mental health group found.

Some universities, including USF, would need more than a dozen additional counselors to reach the student service levels recommended by the International Association of Counseling Services.

The association recommends one counselor for every 1,500 students. But USF has one for every 3,500 students, including its branch campuses like St. Petersburg. It would take 22 additional counselors to get to the recommended level.

The University of Central Florida in Orlando would need 16 additional counselors, according to the report.

The Board of Governors group recommends several changes, such as colleges seeking more money for additional staff members - be it state dollars, federal grants or other sources. One option could be a new student fee, or a higher health fee, to cover the costs.

But state law caps the existing health fee and how much it rises each year. Many institutions are already at or near the limit. USF charges $7.91 per credit hour.

Tracy Tyree, associate vice president for student affairs at USF, said the counseling center's budget comes from general operating dollars and from the health fee.

"But USF grew very fast in a relatively short period of time, and those resources just didn't keep up," Tyree said.

USF always has counselors on hand to immediately see one of its 45,000 students in an emergency. But the shortage of staff members means a student seeking a first-time appointment likely will wait two weeks or more.

"It might affect how many appointments a student has, how short the appointment is," Tyree said.

Things are improving at USF from last year, though, Tyree said. The university added 30 hours of counseling availability each week by hiring outside counselors part-time. That has cut down on appointment wait times, which reached a peak of four weeks last year.

"We wanted to respond to Virginia Tech, so this was, 'What can we do right away?'" Tyree said.

USF also is exploring the use of postdoctoral interns who have just finished their degrees.

"They are less expensive than hiring a Ph.D. psychologist," Tyree said. "If we had all the money in the world, we'd work very hard to get to that 1 to 1,500 ratio."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.