Opinion: Lack of funding for critical resources failing students
Updated Feb. 22 with the addition of the “Some small steps made” section and note that The Western Front received a response from directors of some of the mentioned resources, which can be read here.
College can be an extremely stressful environment, and the severe underfunding of vital resources on campus exacerbates the stress students are already feeling. Whether it’s getting an appointment at the Counseling Center in a timely manner or graduating on time in the face of extreme bottlenecks, students are unable to get their needs met.
In-state tuition and fees are around $8,000 a year, and for out-of-state students, it’s around $22,000 a year. A dorm room and meal plan adds on an extra $10,000. With these exorbitant costs, students should be receiving the resources they need.
Western’s most critical services continue to be underfunded. Essential needs, such as the Counseling Center, Health Center and disAbility Resources, lack adequate funding and square footage. Attempts to alleviate this issue have still left gaps in funding, leaving some students unable to access the services they need to be successful.
Increased funding needs to come from the legislature, but Western also needs to address institutional issues affecting students’ access to resources.
A lack of resources for the Counseling Center means students have to wait up to two weeks before having an initial assessment from a counselor.
If Western increased its number of counselors to 14, the student-to-clinical staff ratio would allow for students to be seen within five days, and the average number of sessions could increase to six, Counseling Center Director Shari Robinson said. This would cut down on lengthy appointment wait times and create more opportunities for students to access counseling.
Robinson has also expressed concerns with a lack of diversity on the Counseling Center staff.
While funding is largely dependent on the legislature, some of the issues related to providing mental health support to students is institutional.
“Western is a difficult university to recruit and retain faculty and staff of color,” Robinson said, calling the issue systemic.
Although the Health Center received a fee increase this year for staff salaries and part-time pay, it still struggles with understaffing, resulting in overworked healthcare providers. This is especially critical during this time of the year, when a debilitating flu season can cause appointment times to overlap, and the staff is often working past their expected hours to meet high student demand.
The disAbility Resources office suffers from understaffing, as the center does not have the state-mandated five counselors it needs to match Western’s size. Right now, it only has two, which is not nearly enough to keep up with the current student demand. It’s also squeezed into Old Main, with space for only three offices, a common reception room and a testing center.
(Note: In a response, the associate director of disAbility Resources said the office would be moving to Wilson Library soon, and that disAbility Resources will have a new full-time director and additional accommodation counselor.)
Limits on class sizes
A common complaint among students is not being able to get into a class for their major. Overcrowded classrooms and endless waitlists have become the norm in some programs. This is proven to be especially true in Western’s STEM fields, but it is also a problem in other programs.
Western has made addressing bottlenecks in STEM a priority this legislative session. We are hopeful the issue will be addressed for STEM programs, but also for other in-demand programs throughout campus.
The small things count too
With students paying around $20,000-$34,000 annually for tuition, fees and housing, the small things count too, like having to put up with routine building disrepair and fighting to find an available parking spot in Western’s Hunger Games-inspired C-lots.
Ninety-five percent of the buildings within campus housing are at least 50 years old, resulting in failing mechanical parts and costly repairs. The 60-year-old Edens North became famous in winter 2016, when students had to shower in cold water for over a month. The Fairhaven stacks and Mathes Hall have experienced flooding in the past year. And it’s not an uncommon occurrence for people living in Birnam Wood to find mice in their rooms, which the Front has both heard from students and seen in university maintenance requests.
Some small steps made
In January, Western received around $27 million in appropriations from the legislature (significantly less than its original $127 million request). This amount includes funds for the design of a renovation and addition to the Environmental Studies Building, as well as facilities maintenance.
Because of a lack of funding from the legislature, the Board of Trustees approved using one-time university funds to give $2.7 million to the Disability Resources and Veteran Services offices and $1.99 million to the Multicultural Center, at its Feb. 9 meeting.
The Western Front commends this dedication to increasing funding for these services, but still feels more must be done, as the legislature has not provided enough to address critical needs.
Western only received half of the requested amount for elevator repairs and ADA upgrades. Western requested $7.2 million for security upgrades to improve Western’s ability to respond to active shooter lockdown scenarios, fires and other emergencies, but received $1.5 million.
The original request for the science building expansion was made recognizing the lack of resources and space for STEM majors and faculty. While the $6 million from the legislature is a step, it is significantly less than the original $56 million requested.
The directors of the Student Health Center and Counseling Center, and associate director of disAbility Resources, said in their response to this piece that they are working to hire additional staff. We’re hopeful that occurs, and do not doubt their unwavering support for students, but still stand by our claim that as demand for these essential services is up, resources should rise to meet them.
The road to funding
The long-needed expansion of the Ethnic Student Center and Resource and Outreach Programs offices is one step forward in adapting to student growth and needs. However, the majority of the funding for the Multicultural Center project comes from student fees.
Obtaining more funding, especially at the university level, is never an easy process. And while it’s easy to critique Western’s allocation of funds, a lot of the burden falls on the legislature. Western has asked the legislature time and time again to address the funding gaps that exist for critical student services. The mental and physical health of students are non-negotiables and necessary for student health, success and retention. It’s not enough to merely look at decreasing tuition; once students come to Western, they should be able to access the services needed to keep them here.
Recognizing dedicated staff
Western’s vital resources are severely underfunded and understaffed. More funding is needed, but The Western Front would like to acknowledge and show appreciation for the counselors, doctors and all others who work more than they should have to in support of students. These people often work long hours, and as many of them are salaried, do not receive additional pay for the extra hours required to meet high student demand. They contribute to the well-being of Western’s student body in ways that are essential to student success and retention, despite the unfair lack of resources.
The directors of Western’s Counseling Center and Student Health Center and associate director of disAbility Resources responded to this opinion piece. Their response, which includes that they are working to hire additional staff, can be read here.
The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Kira Erickson, Asia Fields and Melissa McCarthy.