More Patients, Less Pay
Although nearly 60 percent of all counseling center directors are women, their salaries are significantly lower than those of their male counterparts, according to this year's Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey.
And in the survey's major finding regarding students, most counselors say the number of students on campus with "severe psychological problems" is increasing, while anxiety has surpassed depression as the number one issue students are dealing with.
The survey of 424 college counseling center directors, conducted in fall 2010, always collects salary information, but this year the researchers decided to analyze those data further, said Victor W. Barr, the lead researcher and director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Controlling for factors such as institution type, female directors still come up short on the payroll, making an average of 9 percent less than men. Male directors with 10 years or more of experience had "consistently higher" salaries than women with comparable experience. But among directors with four to six years of experience, men's salaries were 19 percent higher than women's.
The only areas in which women reported higher salaries than men were among those with seven to nine years of experience, and at institutions with enrollment between 10,000 and 15,000. "We've kind of noticed it before, but we never really went after it in a big way," Barr said of the salaries. "It really shows up as a disparity."
Types of Student Problems
More students having serious psychological problems is another trend that has been reported in past years. This year, 77 percent of directors -- 6 percent more than last year -- said they believe the number of students with severe psychological problems on their campuses has increased.
Among the average of 11.4 percent of students who now seek counseling at the typical institution, 40 percent are seeking treatment for anxiety (up about 3 percent from last year), while 38 percent cite depression. "As could be assumed, the percentage of students seeking services increased as institutional size decreased," the report says. Another 15 percent of students who seek counseling struggle with suicidal thoughts or behavior, 11 percent with substance abuse or dependence, 9 percent with self-injury, and 7 percent with eating disorders.
The increase in students with psychological problems is "a trend that's been going on for a long time," Barr said. "I'm not sure if it's still increasing, or it's just that we have more of them than we know what to do with as counseling centers."
An annual survey of incoming freshmen published in January out of the University of California at Los Angeles also reported the steepest one-year drop in students' emotional well-being in 45 years. (Females reported emotional health levels at an average of 13 percentage points lower than did their male peers.) But that survey also found that students reported more optimism, academic ability and drive to succeed than incoming freshmen had in years past.
Besides anxiety surpassing depression in frequency for the first time, another "pretty notable" finding in this year's directors' survey, Barr said, is that on average, 14.4 students per campus were hospitalized or sent to an emergency room for assessment for psychological reasons; that number is on an "upward slope," he said.
Counseling centers are also diversifying, with colleges hiring more professional staff members to provide psychiatric services, as well as hiring case managers and forming teams of officials to identify and help students who may be in trouble.
Having all of these resources allows institutions to cover as many bases as possible; while confidentiality issues keep counseling centers from responding to students when they need help but aren't at a center on campus, case managers and committees don't face those obstacles.
"There's not a lot of things we can do out of the building. If we've got a student that somebody's really concerned about, we really have to have someone else in general go out and check on the person," Barr said. "Counseling centers are dealing with increasing complexity in their clients."