In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!

Job Description

Counseling in a small-college counseling center will bear more of a resemblance to that in a medium-size institution than a large university. Small colleges will be defined as those with an enrollment of 5000 FTE and less. Some small colleges will have enrollments of less than 1000 FTE and will likely have one or two counselors.

Degree Required

Though a doctoral degree is an advantage, there are several master’s level counselors staffing small-college counseling centers. In small-college counseling settings, counselors are commonly psychologists. Their degrees may include PhD, PsyD, or EdD in counseling or clinical psychology; PhD or MS (or MA) in counseling (mental health counseling, college counseling, etc.); or the MSW in social work.

Issues to Understand

Counselors working at small-college counseling centers will deal with the same types of mental health issues as their colleagues at medium- and large-size institutions, though some issues will be fewer in number. Like all collegiate settings, the “big three” of depression, anxiety disorders, and addictions are the most common issues. Suicide prevention will be a significant concern, as will the eating disorders, sexual assault trauma, and traditional issues such as loneliness, roommate conflicts, and academic and career issues. Many small-college counseling centers will also serve as the career center, and some may operate jointly with the health center (though a much smaller percentage). Because at small-college settings faculty and staff will serve many roles (on various campus committees such as academic honesty, student activities board, and judicial board), dual relationships will be more of a concern compared with larger institutions where there is more social distance. Counselors must prepare themselves and their clients to face the reality that they will see one another in settings outside the counseling center. At small, elite private colleges, parents may not understand matters of confidentiality in the light of the fact they may be paying $30,000 to $40,000 a year in tuition and fees. In religiously affiliated institutions, the vast majority of which are small colleges having under 5000 FTE, there may be pressure to refrain from counseling on safe sex, birth control, gay and lesbian issues, and more.

Best Aspects of the Job

Like medium-size and large universities, counseling in a collegiate setting has many advantages: College students will generally be more motivated, optimistic clients who are excited about their future as a doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, business executive, religious leader, and so forth. Counseling in a small-college setting also can be very rewarding because you know many of the students, faculty, staff, and coaches. Many faculty, staff, and coaches will serve as referral sources for the counseling center, and the distance between academic majors, student affairs, and classified staff will be significantly less than in larger settings. There may be more of a sense of community at a small college.

Challenging Aspects of the Job

There will be plenty of challenges for counselors at a small-college setting. The pay will be lower than at larger settings (elite small colleges are exceptions to this rule), and in some cases, the salary will be very low. As previously mentioned, religiously affiliated small colleges may set barriers to what may be discussed in counseling (e.g., abortion, birth control, and gay and lesbian issues). Small colleges, more than larger institutions, will require counselors to “wear many hats.” Counselors may also provide career and academic advising, advise student organizations, be expected to serve on campus committees, be actively involved in training of residence hall staff, and so forth. Counselors at small colleges will need to be well organized and good at multitasking. Many small-college counseling centers will also require the staff to serve as evening crisis counselors (larger institutions will often contract this service out or split the evening work among various staff). This can create a real strain on counselors, especially during midterm and nearfinals when stress is at the highest. Counseling centers at small colleges are also usually understaffed. In institutions having less than 1000 FTE, there may be only one counselor for the entire campus. In such cases, isolation is a real concern, creating the need to stay connected to professional organizations such as the ACCA, which operates a list-serv and publishes a professional  journal. Consultation with other counseling professionals, standard at most college counseling centers, can be very challenging in many small college settings, particularly those with only one counselor on staff. As with large-university counseling centers, a background in college counseling is advantageous for getting hired. Readers interested in small-college counseling centers should serve an internship in a college counseling center during their graduate program.

Occupational Outlook and Salary

Though only a few statistics are reported, salaries will vary considerably from low $30,000 to high $50,000, with the median reported at $43,980 (BOLS, 2010–2011), depending on the affluence of the college. Small state colleges and nonelite private colleges will likely pay the lowest salaries. Occupational outlook is challenging, though in some cases, it is less so than in larger collegiate settings due to lower salaries.

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