University of Mary Awarded $6-Million Grant to Address Critical Counseling Shortage in North Dakota K-12 Schools

Students in class

“Graduate students accepted into this program won’t have to pay one penny for their degree …”

BISMARCK, ND — The last North Dakota Legislature realized the need for counselors in its rural state by mandating that each public K-12 school have one per every 300 students. This past fall, Dr. Carmelita Lamb, associate dean of the Liffrig Family School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Mary, experienced the crisis firsthand. She emailed approximately 90 K-12 administrators across North Dakota to inquire about the current state of counselor vacancies. This workforce analysis yielded a startling 24 counseling vacancies in the rural state of North Dakota that has approximately 123,000 K-12 students in 179 school districts.

Lamb recalls, “One administrator from Montpelier, who’s a University of Mary School Counseling graduate, remarked, ‘I’m in a situation now where I have 110 students with close to 50% of them on free and reduced lunch, so I don’t meet the threshold of one counselor per 300 students.’ And to make it worse he said, ‘I can get a counselor to come 20 miles from Jamestown for one day a week to serve all these children — it doesn’t even scratch the surface.’ Another administrator on a reservation commented, ‘If we don’t get help soon, I am afraid we are going to lose more students to suicide.’” 

Help is now on the way. With that data and individual testimony, the University of Mary became the beneficiary of a $6-million Department of Education grant through its Mental Health Services Professionals (MHSP) Demonstration Program. Out of 185 applicants, only 67 grants were awarded, and University of Mary was one of the highest. Mary is awarded $1.2 million each year over the next five years to support their new Accelerated Counseling Education for Student Success (ACCESS) program that educates and trains graduate students who want to become mental health professionals as counselors in K-12 schools.

“We wrote the grant proposal to assist K-12 children with their mental health needs,” added Lamb. “We wanted to help school districts who have been unable to attract counselor applicants; they do not have the opportunity to recruit. So, we are asking these administrators in all districts to look within their faculty and ask ‘Who wants to step up and earn a master’s degree in just two years to be the counselor of our school? And if you wish to do this, here’s the program for you.’”

The University of Mary's graduate counseling program is 60 credits and enrolls new students annually. For this grant program, students will begin each fall for the next four years - allowing for four cohorts. On the fifth year, any of these master’s degree participants from the previous cohorts can choose to come back and earn a value-added credential in clinical mental health. Because the counseling program is online, it assures graduate students can stay home and take courses online without leaving their community. The degree also requires a one-week summer residency on University of Mary’s campus. And, the best part, thanks to scholarship money from this grant, it is 100% free for the students who are accepted into the counseling program.

“Graduate students accepted into this program won’t have to pay one penny for their degree, it is all paid for — tuition, fees, books, licensure exams, internships, travel, one week residency — anything our participating graduate student needs during the two-year program, this grant scholarship covers it.”

Lamb adds, for generations, counselors always used to be about vocations, mainly helping answer the questions: What do you want to do for your career? Where do you want to go to college? And how do we help you get there?

“We’ve really seen a social shift in what counselors are being asked to support in K-12,” Lamb continued. “Right now, there is a tremendous amount of mental health disparity. For that, the University of Mary is deeply grateful and humbled by the tremendous show of confidence the Department of Education-Mental Health Service Professional (MHSP) Demonstration grant, has bestowed upon our master’s in K-12 counseling program. I have never been more certain of the critical need in our communities across North Dakota for this level of highly trained support for our children. Through ACCESS the most marginalized, rural populations of children as well as those living in urban environments will have a unique opportunity for mental health and vocational support as never before. North Dakota and the University of Mary are in a position to serve as a model for what can be accomplished for our children in a rural state when all partners come together for one unified cause—to build capacity in K-12 counseling for North Dakota.”

As of the 2020 census, the reported rate of poverty in North Dakota is 11%: counties with Native American populations report poverty rates as high as 28%. The school counseling profession helps students thrive academically, socially, emotionally in their lives and future careers. University of Mary’s graduate students study to prepare to meet the many needs of a diverse population in North Dakota, dealing with numerous challenges in their young lives.  

Current teachers in North Dakota and from out of state are encouraged to apply for University of Mary’s ACCESS K-12 counseling program immediately by contacting Dr. Carmelita Lamb or Jennifer Eberle Like all of Mary’s programs, the application process is competitive, and if applicants don’t get accepted the first time, they are encouraged to reapply for the next fall cohort.  

Anyone who wishes to learn more about any undergraduate or graduate programs can do so at, or, respectively, or by contacting an admissions representative at, or by calling (701) 355-8030. The University of Mary is one of only 15 Recommended Cardinal Newman Society Residential Colleges and Universities in the US.

About the University of Mary: True to its motto “lumen vitae”—The Light of Life—the University of Mary offers education for the whole of life through cutting-edge professional programs and graduate programs animated by moral courage and leadership in chosen professions and service to the community. A private, co-educational Catholic institution, the University of Mary welcomes students of all faiths and backgrounds.

A Christian, Catholic, Benedictine institution founded in 1959 by the Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation Monastery, Mary offers nearly 60 bachelor’s, 15 master’s, and five doctoral programs—in Business Administration, Education, Nursing Practice, Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy. The 19-sport Athletic Department adheres to its Greatness Through Virtue mission under the governance of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) conferences. With more than 3,800 students, Mary has locations in North Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Rome, Italy, as well as vibrant online offerings. For more information, visit