OPINION: Universities’ financial mismanagement, rising costs are making the student mental health crisis worse

Increasing tuition to fund mental health programs is a counterintuitive approach to solving the mental health crisis on campus, especially when universities often manage their budgets so poorly.

As college students entered the Fall semester, they may have noticed a huge change: a spike in their tuition.

From the University of Virginia to Carnegie Mellon UniversityCampus Reform has unveiled that universities are ramping up fees nationwide.

Miami University (MU), Ohio, for example, announced in June that it is increasing tuition for in-state students by 4.6% and 3% for out-of-state students. In addition to the tuition increase, the university is also implementing an annual $100 mental health fee.

The increase, MU claimed, supports a new mental health program - a justification to increase tuition and fees now used by many universities across the country.   

Iowa State Daily reported that several universities in Iowa have increased tuition by more than 4% “to cover mental health services.” 

“In July, the Iowa Board of Regents approved a tuition increase of 4.25% for the 2022-2023 academic year at Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa and the University of Iowa,” according to the article.  

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Investments in mental health programs on college campuses follow an increased demand for counseling, according to a survey by The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. In fact, “87.3% of directors reported experiencing an increased demand for counseling services in the past year.”

Little is mentioned, however, that the growing demand for mental health services is parallel to rising education costs. While tuition has been rising for more than a century, according to an Education Data Initiative report, the increase in recent years has been staggering.

“Between 2009-10 and 2019-20, the total cost of attendance (fees, tuition, room, and board) saw an increase of 39.9% at public 4-year schools,” the report found. 

The cost of college is often so high, in fact, that it is now a greater financial burden than buying a home. Student loans are now the largest part of non-housing debt, more than credit cards and car loans,” according to an October 2021 Scholars Strategy Network (SSN) report. And the burden of student loan debt correlates to the worsening “mental health crisis on college campuses.” 

Universities then, counterintuitively, worsen the mental health crisis through these tuition increases. But, even if that was not the case, the university’s ability to seriously address mental health should still be called into question. 

In May, for example, the U.S. Department of Education (DOEd) explicitly called on colleges to use “Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds” (HEERF) to invest in mental health support. But universities poorly managed their budgets, and, despite receiving millions of extra funding, they did not create the robust mental services the DOEd called for. 

Pointing back to MU, for example, it received $69,744,991 in emergency relief via HEERF. And although it spent 99.3% of the funding before June 30, it made no dramatic improvements to its mental health services. 

MU only offers “brief counseling services,” and outsources its students in need of care to local practitioners, where they will have to pay out of pocket, the Student Counseling Services website states. 

The severity of the current mental health crisis was compounded by universities that implemented radical lockdown policies during the pandemic. 

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At Ohio University, for example, a concerned mother told Campus Reform that her son was denied adequate access to food while under quarantine. 

At Yale University, students were barred from venturing off-campus to local restaurants or businesses.

In a Campus Reform report earlier this year, one Maryland student said, “[locking down] definitely also affects mental health... especially for people who…, have a problem with… depression and isolation.”

Increasing tuition to fund mental health programs is a counterintuitive approach to solving the mental health crisis on campus, especially when universities often manage their budgets so poorly that new investments into mental health services do not improve those services on campus. 

As the SSN put it: “As a country, we are failing to adequately manage what some experts are calling a mental health crisis on college campuses, and advocates, policymakers, and health professionals need to do more.”

The Board of Miami University did not respond to Campus Reform’s request for commentThis article will be updated accordingly. 

Follow @Alexaschwerha1 and @J_Gould_ on Twitter.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.