With Connecticut’s public universities scrambling to reopen in seven weeks, officials are beset with uncertainty.
How widespread will the coronavirus be in September?
Will Congress authorize more pandemic relief for states by then? If so, will Gov. Ned Lamont and the state legislature share any of it?
Despite all these unknowns, higher education officials say there’s an even bigger question threatening their economic future.
Will students tolerate the socially-distanced, online-dominated, yet-still-expensive college experience amidst COVID-19?
“There’s a lot of potential for a bad [budgetary] outcome here if enrollment falls short,” said Ben Barnes, chief financial officer for the Board of Regents for Higher Education. “We need students showing up.”
And if they won’t, what does it mean for systems whose finances already were battered by the coronavirus a few months ago? If student frustration this fall leads to an exodus from campuses in January, higher education budgets could be in a world of pain.
“What we are planning for is normal — for now,” University of Connecticut Dean of Students Eleanor JB Daugherty said this week, shortly before the Board of Trustees approved a budget that offers 50% or fewer classes in person this fall, eliminates 4,000 housing beds and trims most departments by at least 3%. “We’re asking all of us to live in the ‘normal — for now.’”
The budget plan: prepare to hemorrhage cash
The tens of millions of dollars refunded to students this past spring because of the pandemic was just the tip of the disaster, UConn and state university officials say.
The Board of Regents — which oversees the state university and community college systems — already expects enrollment to be down 10% at three of its four regional universities, and hopes community college turnout remains constant.
UConn hopes to avoid enrollment losses among in-state and most out-of-state students. But projections also show one scenario where both are down 5% or more. And international enrollment is expected to drop massively, down a half to nearly 75%.
The “best-case” projection calls for housing to be down 25% and dining service use off by 50%, for a loss of $16 million. If there’s a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak and the campus shuts down again, the fiscal hit could approach $60 million.
All those projections, cobbled together by the regents and trustees, are laced with potential deficits, and plans to try and cover them.
The $1.54 billion budget UConn trustees adopted for the main campus in Storrs and the satellite branches is expected to require anywhere from $47 million to almost $130 million from university reserves to stay afloat.
Revenues are projected to be down $33 million in the state university system, which would wipe out nearly a third of its emergency reserves to cover the pandemic-related losses last spring and balance the books this upcoming academic year.
“These are not budgets in the traditional sense,” said Scott Jordan, UConn’s chief financial officer. “They’re not balanced.” Within a year or two, universities will be looking at massive fiscal instability that will require a huge infusion from the state.
There’s a lot of potential for a bad outcome here if enrollment falls short. We need students showing up.”
And that’s despite maintaining previously approved tuition and fee hikes. Charges at the four regional, state universities rise 3.3% for resident students this fall, ranging from $24,218 to $26,738. Tuition, room and board for in-state UConn students at Storrs climbed 2% to $31,092.
And both Jordan and Barnes acknowledged the fiscal hits could come from Hartford as well.
Lamont is projecting a whopping $2.5 billion hole in state finances in the fiscal year that begins July 1. And the governor has tremendous discretion to unilaterally reduce most areas of state spending, including higher education block grants, by up to 5% once the budget year is underway. UConn trustees already have built a nearly $10 million hit from the governor into their plan.
Higher education budgets also have to cover significant raises for most unionized employees.
In return for granting wage and benefit concessions in 2017, bargaining units at UConn and in the Board of Regents’ system were pledged a 5.5% raise this fall. Unions have said they don’t want to discuss further givebacks until after Lamont and legislators consider raising taxes on Connecticut’s wealthiest household.
UConn will cut most non-union managers’ compensation by 5% through furloughs while the regents budgeted flat pay for this group.
But both systems also are counting on attrition — faculty retirements that largely won’t be refilled — to keep salary accounts balanced. This, in turn, could change how students see Connecticut’s universities.
On-campus life will change dramatically
Despite the planned cuts and the continuing pandemic, UConn officials insist many students are eager to return to campus this fall.
Though the online education program assembled last spring ran smoothly, UConn President Thomas Katsouleas said last week, “it clearly was not what UConn students or their parents are interested in. We’ve heard that message loud and clear.”
But COVID-19 will make the in-person look vastly different. For starters, about one third of the Storrs campus’ 12,000 dormitory beds will be eliminated to allow for more social distancing.
“There almost certainly will be some [returning] students who lose their housing assignment,” said Provost Carl W. Lejuez.
Additionally, both higher education systems have prepared emergency beds to house infected students. Those exposed to COVID-19 could be asked to self-quarantine.
Most classes will utilize just 30% of available space, which translates into fewer students — and more courses offered online. UConn officials say fewer than 50% of classes may be open for in-person attendance. Officials in the regents system are looking at a similar emphasis on online courses.
I don’t think the students fully grasp how different the on-campus experience will be this fall. Each one will have to decide, can they overcome those barriers to make that experience worth it?”
Classes also will have larger breaks in between to allow for sanitizing, another limit on the number of students that can be served in-person.
Extracurriculars are changing too: men’s cross-country, swimming and diving, and tennis, as well as women’s rowing, will be eliminated after the upcoming school year after UConn trustees reduced the athletics’ subsidy by 10%.
Resident students won’t be restricted to their dorms, but those who would attend major events and gatherings in past years might have to settle for a walk around campus, Daugherty said.
“We know we’re asking a lot of students,” Lejuez added.
‘We’re still in for a shock’
Nandan Tumu, who graduated from UConn last month and just completed his tenure as a student representative on the Board of Trustees, said he thinks most students don’t blame university officials for the pandemic-related limitations.
But, he added, that also doesn’t mean all will accept them. And its impossible to forecast how many will stick around after the fall semester.
“I think nobody knows the answer,” he said. “I don’t think the students fully grasp how different the on-campus experience will be this fall. Each one will have to decide, can they overcome those barriers to make that experience worth it?”
Tumu, who earned a bachelor’s in computer science with a minor in philosophy, praised UConn for its swift implementation of online earning in March. But those computer-assisted sessions simply aren’t the same as “those really rich and collaborative discussions you have in a learning-from-your-peers, in-person opportunity. I would never have taken an online class if it weren’t for COVID,” he said.
Amara Osorio Nin agreed.
“I think that we’re still in for a shock. That’s the sentiment I get from my friends,” said Osorio Nin, of Manchester, who will be a senior this fall and serves in student government at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
She is majoring in social work, and said many of her classmates have required practical work or volunteer for social programs and, understandably, worry about attendant health risks. But ultimately, she said, she didn’t want to set her academic career back. “I still have work that I need to do,” she said.
Briana Kuo, president of the student government at CCSU and a senior this fall, said the New Britain campus was shut down so abruptly last spring that no one knew how to react.
“We got the emails on our phones and everybody just started running,” she said Friday. “We threw together some clothes and left. I just got my mini-fridge back yesterday.”
Despite memories of that confusion, though, Kuo said campus diversity might give students in the state university system a leg up in adjusting to the academic life amidst a pandemic.
“As a state university, we often have older people we’re going to be in class with,” she said. “You might be sitting next to someone who’s 70 years old. You don’t want to infect them. … This whole situation is frustrating, but you can’t blame the administration. This literally has never happened before.”
Will students return to campus?
The economic downturn driven by the pandemic could have a silver lining for higher education, suggested Barnes, the chief financial officer for the Board of Regents.
I feel like I would lose motivation for school if I took a gap year. I know the first two or three weeks back are going to be very different. But I feel I am set up for success.”
Simply put, few things emphasize the need for a college education more than a recession. And community colleges, which traditionally offer the lowest prices and tremendous scheduling flexibility, should remain attractive, he said. “I believe we can find a place in that higher education market that will continue to allow us to prosper,” Barnes said.
Nicole Elsinger, 21, of Suffield, a senior and member of student government at Central Connecticut State University, said she doesn’t blame those students who decide — given the high cost of college — to take time off.
But Elsinger, a double-major in accounting and mathematics, said that for her, the smart move was to stay enrolled and endure the pandemic adjustments.
“I feel like I would lose motivation for school if I took a gap year,” she said. “I know the first two or three weeks back are going to be very different. But I feel I am set up for success.”