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Colleges struggle with enrollment uncertainty: 'They might not show up'

Colleges struggle with enrollment uncertainty: 'They might not show up'

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Medaille College’s board of trustees has given President Kenneth Macur unprecedented emergency powers to steer the college through fiscal strains during the coronavirus pandemic.

Macur last week invoked an “act of God” clause in the college’s faculty handbook that allows him to suspend for up to six months all policies and procedures related to the hiring and firing of faculty, governance of the college and oversight of academic programs.

The move, approved by the executive committee of the college’s board of trustees, allows Macur to even fire professors who have tenure – a dramatic departure from higher education norms.

Macur said he will continue to work with faculty to ensure the college is as prepared as possible for future fallout from the pandemic.

“This just gives us nothing more than an opportunity to make decisions in a little bit more expedient way,” he said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “It certainly won’t be done with me just sitting in my turret office here and throwing darts at a list of personnel and saying, ‘Oh, that one’s gone.’ But we’re all trying to figure out, if 20% of the student body doesn’t show up next fall, what are we going to do?”

Across the country, colleges and universities are struggling to piece together their finances in the wake of a pandemic that’s driven up costs and made it almost impossible to predict what enrollment will be going forward.

More than six out of 10 college and university presidents recently polled by the American Council on Education said their institution’s “long-term financial viability” was among their most pressing concerns. Roughly half of the 192 presidents who were surveyed said they anticipated merging or eliminating academic programs and a third said they anticipated laying off faculty.

Some schools already have taken radical steps. The board of trustees of Central Washington University, a public university of 12,000 students in Ellensburg, Wash., declared a state of “financial exigency” and directed the president to “pursue any measures that are legal and necessary to preserve the educational and financial integrity of the university.” MacMurray College, founded in 1846 in Jacksonville, Ill., announced in March that it will close this month due to declining enrollments and rising costs, which were exacerbated by the pandemic.

Robert M. Zemsky, higher education professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “The College Stress Test,” told the Chronicle of Higher Education in March that the pandemic could result in the shuttering of 20% of the nation’s colleges and universities.

Hilbert: $1,000 tuition credit

Even before the pandemic, many colleges faced increased competition for students and growing pressure to reduce costs, including in Western New York, home to 20 colleges and universities.

Colleges were required in March to close dormitories, and most of them have been refunding student housing fees, a key source of revenue on many campuses, on a prorated basis.

Schools haven’t refunded tuition because they have provided instruction remotely since the global pandemic took hold in the U.S. But now, many of the local colleges are bracing for the possibility that tuition, the main revenue stream, will abruptly shrink in the fall.

“All of our students, in one way or another, are going to be impacted financially,” said Michael Brophy, president of Hilbert College in Hamburg. “That’s a worry, of course, for us.”

On top of refunding or crediting to next year nearly a half-semester’s worth of dorm fees to students and families, Hilbert is giving all returning students who registered by April 15 a $1,000 tuition credit for the 2020-21 academic year. The college also is spending a significant amount of money to develop all courses for online instruction in the event social distancing efforts continue in the fall, said Brophy.

“It’s going to be a very, very tight year,” he said.

Daemen: Enrollment unpredictable

Daemen College President Gary A. Olson said enrollment and budget planning for the fall semester is perhaps the most uncertain it has ever been.

Colleges each year anticipate some percentage of students won’t return to continue their studies, said Olson.

“Usually it’s fairly predictable,” he said. “What we don’t know, what no one knows really, is will that percentage change this year?”

Colleges traditionally have a good picture by now of what their freshman class for the fall is going to look like because many institutions ask for tuition and room deposits by May 1.

But Canisius College President John J. Hurley said that has gone out the window this year, with many institutions extending the deadline to June 1.

An American Council on Education survey of more than 2,000 enrolled U.S. college students found that nearly one in five are uncertain about their plans for re-enrolling in the fall or definitely are not going at all.

Adding to the unpredictability is the fact that highly selective colleges and universities are digging much deeper into their admission waiting lists of students, which will have trickle-down impacts on less selective institutions, said Hurley.

Canisius: Planning for losses in millions

Canisius officials will spend the summer working through various budget scenarios, including those that involve enrollment decreases of 15% to 20%, Hurley said.

“The decline in revenue would be in the millions with a 20% or a 15% shortfall in enrollment,” he said. “And if the students aren’t able to reside on campus, that’s a $10 million-plus number for us.”

“Those are numbers that are very big and are going to take a lot of work to address,” he added.

Canisius lost about $420,000 when the NCAA canceled its men’s basketball tournament in March because of Covid-19. The college had been slated to get $595,000 from tournament revenues and instead received $175,000, said Hurley.

Medaille: Eyeing $3.5 million budget cut

At Medaille, Macur explained in a brief email to faculty that “it would be detrimental to the best interests of the college as a whole to follow the provisions” of the faculty handbook at this time.

A source at the college said faculty objected to the move and voted no confidence in the president. Some employees questioned whether Macur was exploiting the pandemic to make dramatic changes without input from faculty who typically oversee academic matters, said the source, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Macur said he is continuing to collaborate with faculty and has no plans to do “anything silly or rash in the interest of right now that jeopardizes the long-term great relationship that we have with faculty and staff.”

The source said Macur called for at least $3.5 million in cuts to the college’s academic operating budget but gave faculty few financial details to support the need for an emergency declaration.

Macur confirmed that $3.5 million in cuts was among several possible scenarios.

Macur was hopeful that the college would be able to retain all long-term faculty, but he said flexibility was paramount in a time of tremendous uncertainty.

If students “don’t show up, with a willingness and ability to pay tuition, then, yeah, we have to become a smaller institution,” he said.

The college’s fall enrollment projections so far were trending on par with last year, he said.

Enrollment at Medaille was 2,146 students in 2018, according to federal data, which also show the college had a fund balance of $17.4 million that year, with an expense budget of $35.5 million. Tuition and fees totaling $29.3 million accounted for 80% of the college’s overall revenue.

Because of the pandemic, there’s no way for any college or university to predict tuition revenue for this fall, said Macur.

Planning to reopen campuses

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday extended school closings through the end of the school year in June, including college campuses across the state.

But area college presidents say they are proceeding as if their campuses will be open to welcome students back in the fall.

“Unless we’re instructed by the governor to do otherwise, we will be open as usual. We just made that decision,” said Olson, of Daemen. “That being said, we will be taking all kinds of precautions. We’ll be getting PPE. We may be redesigning certain classrooms. And there may be some sessions of a particular course that are online and others in person.”

Canisius also is gearing up for a full fall semester, said Hurley. He said he has heard reluctance from students and families to pay full tuition for online classes, without an in-person campus experience.

“That comment has come up and I understand it,” he said. “We’re proceeding as though we’re going to be live and on campus in the fall. That’s in our best interest. It’s in the students’ best interest. It’s in the faculty’s best interest."

"We’re going to do everything humanly possible to make that happen," he added. "And the only thing that would prevent that from happening is if there was a public health directive that prohibited us from doing that.”

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