Colleges weigh fiscal impact of virus as fall nears

As summer starts to give way to fall, students would be coordinating dorm rooms with roommates or preparing for new internships across the state. What higher education looks like for students will be different this year, but it will also vary greatly for the universities and colleges that host them — especially when it comes to the bottom line.

“Clearly we’ve had economic downturns, ‘08, ‘09 — the different recessions back in early 2000, things like that, but they were economic downturns where you could look to basically cutting the budget and trying to get through a year or two of reduced funding in certain operational areas,” said Mark Brainard, president of Delaware Technical Community College. “This really impacts teaching and learning and it requires an awful lot of pivoting on the part of our faculty and our staff in order to provide additional levels of support for students.”

As the K12 public schools grapple with how — or if — they’ll return students to desks and teachers to classrooms, colleges and universities have been making similar choices.

Some announced plans to remain remote for the fall semester, like DelTech and Wilmington University. Others have intentions of bringing students back to campus, like Delaware State University, Wesley College and Goldey-Beacom College, with hybrid courses that mix remote and in-person instruction.

The University of Delaware was likewise planning on how it would bring its thousands of students home to Newark, before it rolled back earlier plans in July and decided most UD classes would be delivered online, with only a select few courses requiring in-person instruction on campus.

The university will lose between $75 and $100 million for the next semester, said spokeswoman Andrea Boyle Tippett.

“That is a number of factors, including a smaller freshman class and some … students not returning who are upperclassmen,” she said. “We also are losing study abroad revenue. Then there’s the housing and dining revenue.”

Housing and dining revenue losses are between $20 and $24 million. The university also froze tuition this year.

Added costs

It’s not only losses that fold into that net loss figure: it’s added costs. The university is spending $10 million on safety — personal protective equipment, contact tracing, hand sanitation stations and increased cleaning. Another $20 million was spent on undergraduate financial aid, and $6 million was spent on online course delivery.

“There’s been a lot of preparation to make sure that the online experience is enhanced from what it was in the spring,” Ms. Tippett said. “In the spring, it was an emergency that we had to switch everything over within two weeks from the large majority of courses being in-person — either classroom or lab experiences or field experiences.”

Enrollment has also been decreasing steadily over the past few months, she said.

“We knew in the spring, when this happened, that we were going to have a smaller class than we anticipated,” she said.

For DelTech, the community college is funded primarily through the state’s budget process. This year, the budget remained flat, with the school unable to fund any new initiatives.

The campus is open for students to access computer labs and the writing center. The institution hasn’t had to make significant changes to the facilities, as it can enforce social distancing with a less dense population on campus, given its decision to continue distance learning, Dr. Brainard said.

“If we decide that we don’t have the capacity in the existing [computer labs] that we have now, we’ll open up additional room,” he said. “We’ll provide additional space in some of our underutilized areas on campus, such as labs and classrooms; we have conference centers. There’s a lot of options that we can pursue to get us through the fall semester without having to make a lot of physical changes to the site.”

DelTech invests in tech

With classes remote, the college has invested in technology — approximately $1.3 million for faculty development services, technology maintenance and licensing, equipment and services.

When courses first went remote in March, the college created a virtual Student Support Center, where students have access remotely to financial aid advising, counseling and more, which their investment supports. Zoom capacity was also expanded and wifi hotspots were created at all of the campus locations.

“Those are the types of things that we would have done years down the road but this requires us to make the investments a bit sooner,” he said.

Grant funding helped create a student lending program for those without laptops.

“We realized, back in the spring, that some students clearly can’t participate in distance education if they don’t have technology,” Dr. Brainard said. “So we created this funding program and we’ll be able to provide laptops and devices to students who don’t have them. You combine that with some of the additional capacity and some of the extra operating hours and providing access to the campuses, we’re feeling a bit more comfortable for the fall than we were in the spring.”

Enrollment is flat compared to this time last year, he said, but he anticipates more students to roll in over the next few weeks. The college could potentially see even more than expected as students weigh the prospect of going to an out-of-state institution. DelTech won’t know if that’s the case until they review data later in the year.

“I think when you look at our quality, and you look at our value, it makes total sense, not just here in Delaware, but all over the country, that tends to be a trend: to see college-aged students going local and benefiting from community college education during that either … bridge year or even that first year into a college or a university setting,” he said.

DSU: too soon to tell

A spokesman for DSU said that it was too soon to tell what impact the pandemic would have fiscally for the university.

Like other institutions bringing their students back, the campus will see modifications. Density will be lowered in residence halls. Rooms will be set aside for students who test positive and must quarantine. Campus facilities will have barriers installed in high-traffic areas, and there will be an enhanced cleaning schedule. Many of the buildings will open with limited capacity for students. Public events that utilize the campus will be limited this fall.

The university will also partner with Testing for America, a nonprofit focused on COVID-19 testing. The partnership was facilitated in part via New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer contributing $100,000 in CARES Act funding to the initiative, according to a news release.

Testing a perk for Wesley

The partnership with Testing for America is a perk for Wesley College, which announced this summer it would be acquired by DSU by June 2021.

“That’s something we would have never been able to do on our own,” said Wesley President Bob Clark.

The total impact on the small Dover college is “across a spectrum of contingencies”; President Clark declined to offer estimates.
“For our size, it would be significant and it’s something we’d have to deal with,” he said.

He acknowledged the school is no stranger with financial struggles and while that’s not necessarily a good thing, it has prepared them to confront issues such as this.

“That at least prepares us to go into situations like this with a little bit more understanding and a little bit more practice in finding those efficiencies and doing what we need to do,” he said. “It will be impactful, without a doubt, and quite frankly, if it wasn’t for the partnership we’re moving forward with with DelState, it would be very tenuous.”

Additionally, he has seen a change in enrollment for Wesley, he said.

“Everybody has,” he said. “I think in terms of enrollment you can separate it in certain factions: one, it’s just the concern for the pandemic but then, like a lot of small schools — and quite frankly even large schools — a large population of students are student athletes. And so now, as the NCAA shifts various seasons, [for] student athletes that brings a question to their mind.”

So far, though, the college has seen “very little impact” on returning student athletes, he said, adding that even with fall sports postponed — with the hopes of competing in the spring — Wesley plans on having activities and focus areas for its athletes.

The college has not had to enact furloughs or layoffs, though it does have a hiring freeze (barring critical hires) and has “made some cuts and at some higher level to support the faculty and staff writ large,” he said. The college has been supported by CARES Act funding targeting higher education institutions.

“That has been critical for us. Without the federal assistance through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, or the CARES Act… we may be talking to different story if that didn’t happen,” he said.

But it wasn’t just the federal level that helped support the college, President Clark noted. It was also the Delaware community.

The college is putting together kits for each of its returning students, consisting of a face covering, sanitizing products, thermometers, etc. The total of that would have been huge, he said, but partners in the community supported those purchases, slashing what the college ended up spending.

“This is Dover. This is Delaware. I mean we are truly one team, one family, one future,” he said. “As we find ourselves in some difficult times of need, our community reaches out and vice versa.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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