Student Health Care: Can Higher Education Do Better?

September 29, 2022

 An appeal to Leadership to Take a Closer Look

By Rick Gaumer, Principal – Academic Innovators

The higher education community continues to adjust to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  With the spring 2022 term concluding, the Omicron variant is receding in many areas across the country, yet statistics are still showing outbreaks around the country.  Institutions continue to wrestle with on campus health issues that challenged them during the last two years of the pandemic.  Larger schools, like Arizona State University, can partner with the Mayo Clinic on its main campus to provide superlative student healthcare support for their students.  Smaller colleges and universities simply cannot afford or offer such accommodations.

A recent Inside Higher Education Survey of Presidents, for example, revealed that 96% of respondents now see mental health as a primary concern on their campuses.  Further, 77% see physical health of students as a deepening crisis. For small, private colleges, in particular, the financial concerns have grown dramatically with reduced revenues from housing and board, made worse by deep tuition discounts offered by colleges to boost  enrollment.  Despite federal subsidies from the Trump and Biden administrations – now beginning to end — colleges are being pushed to the brink, particularly with a teetering tuition revenue model unable to sustain a post-pandemic recovery after the federal money runs out. Yet, these fiscal woes fail to mask a critical question.  Are colleges and universities today doing their best to provide essential physical, mental, and wellness care for their students?  Can we do better?

As someone with a very broad view of the Higher Education landscape having served over my many years as a Trustee, a CFO, a tenured faculty member, and a long-standing community business leader seeking better and better graduates to employ, I am very concerned about the area of student physical and mental healthcare on campus, especially as we come out of this pandemic.  Schools continue to be strapped for financial resources and finding qualified health professionals to serve roles as nurses and counselors is extremely difficult.  Further, the mental health needs on campus are growing exponentially.  My question for leadership in Higher Education is this:  Are there better ways to support Student Physical and Mental Health as we go forward?

What options do Schools have today for supporting Student Physical and Mental Health on campus?  Let’s be frank:

  1. Schools can maintain the pre-pandemic status quo level of service. For smaller schools this might be a full or part time nurse for physical health.  It might be a full or part time counselor for student mental health needs.  For larger schools, they often maintain larger health offices with better staffing.  Keep in mind, most of these services are staffed in a traditional 40-hour workweek concept by regular employees of the school.  Such support fails in areas of Evening and Weekend service as well as in areas of professional diversity for students of varied backgrounds.
  2. Schools can add full or part time resources.   Both small and larger schools find this option difficult due to budget constraints and the difficulty of paying higher salaries demanded in today’s job market.  Again, does this option create adequate coverage 24/7 going to be available and will be there be adequate professional diversity to support the student body?
  3. Schools can partner with local hospitals and third-party resources for live or tele-med services. Not a bad idea, it does provide the institution greater coverage in the evening or on weekends and does broaden the base of professionals to support the student.  A downside is the increased cost of such services and the inconvenience of not being on campus.
  4. Schools can utilize a third-party, 24/7 provider network. These networks can be both cost effective as well as more effective in dealing with a highly-diverse student population.  We really like those providers who provide this service to all students regardless of insurance status and can effectively support students who seek race and gender preferences for their physical and mental health needs.
  5. Schools can begin to adopt emerging mental health and behavior analysis software tools being used commercially and now being adapted to Higher Education. We are seeing such tools being deployed to positively effect student behaviors before they get out of control.  For example, we are aware of tools now available on student cell phones to instantaneously gather information, deploy artificial intelligence and big data to enable all student-support departments across campus to effectively improve the student experience. The end result is greater support of students with behavioral issues, improved student academic performance, and improved student retention on campus.

In my current role in Higher Education, I am seeking to find ‘best practice’ solutions for a number of compelling problems facing our schools which seek to improve financial sustainability. Spending more money on expanded student support in the area of health care may appear to be counter-intuitive, especially coming from someone who typically manages the budgets and the purse strings.  Yet, leaders must understand the core business of their institution: the effective education and training of students; culminating in their graduation.  Inadequately supporting student physical and mental health needs must be addressed if this mission is to be met.

One last word.  How a college provides expanded health service to students should not be a financial obstacle.  Rather it should be looked at as a strategic decision aimed at providing ‘best care’ health support for all students.  It can and should be a ‘competitive differentiator’, driving up overall enrollments.  Again, the question is simple: Can our institution do a better job in supporting essential student healthcare on our campus?  Leaders with fiduciary responsibilities should take a moment and think hard before answering.

About Rick Gaumer.  Rick is a Trustee of Waldorf University [Iowa].  Further, he is a principal with Academic Innovators, a national thought-leader firm focused exclusively on higher education, with an emphasis on identifying innovative and ‘best practice’ solutions to improve long-term growth and financial sustainability for the institution.   Rick is also an experienced executive having served as CFO for both Emory & Henry College [VA] and Lyon College [AR].