COVID-19 takes toll on colleges

Empty classrooms, student unions and parking lots signify the drastic change to which many collegiate institutions have had to adapt. For many private and community colleges across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has also evoked financial concerns.

For Marietta College, a private liberal arts school in Marietta, Ohio, the cost of reimbursing students for room and board this semester has already taken its toll. Tom Perry, the vice president for communication and brand management, said the college plans to mail refund checks to students the week of May 4.

“We are planning to provide a pro-rated refund for room and board,” Perry said in an email.

The total cost impact for Marietta College is expected to reach about $1 million, he said. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Perry said the school’s officials have been discussing “ways we can save money now that will help minimize the impact.”

The school had announced last year that tuition would increase 2 percent from this school year to next school year, Perry said, but that wasn’t because of the pandemic.

“We will not be increasing tuition because of the current pandemic or to cover any financial losses,” he said.

Perry said that college officials aren’t too concerned about fall enrollment numbers potentially dropping because the current students are still receiving a “first-rate virtual education” from the faculty and staff.

“Everyone wishes that we were not going through this, but everyone has learned some amazing lessons that will make us stronger in the future,” Perry said. “Therefore, we expect to have strong retention numbers with our current students and we are still faring well in regards to attracting new students.”

The college offered some virtual orientation programs that have received positive feedback, Perry said, with plans to have orientation programming over the summer. They also plan for students to move in on time this fall, with the understanding that some adjustments might need to be made.

The school also is accepting screenshots of high school transcripts and ACT and SAT test scores, so students can complete their applications, Perry said. While they’re keeping the deadlines previously established, they’re trying to be flexible during the pandemic.

“We understand that families are going through different scenarios that they couldn’t have imagined two months ago,” Perry said.

What could happen by the fall is a huge unknown for community colleges, too, according to Don MacMaster, president of Alpena Community College in Alpena, Michigan.

“No one really knows what the fall holds,” he said. “There’s a lot of concern about that.”

He said that fall enrollment could go two ways. Historically, there have been times of economic distress when enrollment at community colleges has increased. On the flip side, if folks are unemployed or even sick, attending college might not be “on their list of priorities come August,” MacMaster said.

That could pose a problem because a good portion of the college’s budget comes from enrollment. Another major concern is the 40 percent of the approximate $15 million budget that comes from state appropriations, MacMaster said, especially considering that the state budget has been greatly affected by COVID-19.

“It’s a concerning time, unprecedented and very challenging, but I have a lot of faith in our staff and our community to get through this,” MacMaster said. “We aren’t anticipating layoffs of staff or budget cuts at this time.”

So far, the biggest expense has been refunding students for housing. Alpena Community College had just over 60 students living on campus, but when the school closed the third week of March, the students all went home. They reimbursed those students for the final two months of rent.

“We felt it was the right thing to do,” MacMaster said.

The refund was about $800 per student, costing the school about $50,000, he said.

“That was certainly something we hadn’t budgeted for,” MacMaster added.

Waynesburg University, a small Christian college in Greene County, Pennsylvania, also plans to make adjustments for students who paid for housing this semester. Stacey Brodak, vice president for institutional advancement and university relations, said that “in most cases,” a refund would be credited to the students’ future accounts.

“We will be in a better position to determine the financial impact after additional guidance from the Department of Education is received,” Brodak said in an email. “We anticipate such guidance to be issued soon. At that time, we will also be able to apply credits and refunds to all affected students, including seniors.”

As far as fall enrollment goes, Waynesburg officials do not suspect the pandemic will influence the size of the incoming class, due to dedicated work of admissions counselors and implemented virtual visits, Brodak said.

“Early indications show that we will not see drastic declines in our enrollment this fall,” she explained.

Not all schools are anticipating a financial impact either. Thanks to support from alumni and other private donors, Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., is in a “sound financial position,” according to Erin Jones, associate director of public relations.

“This is not an easy time for anyone,” Jones said. “It’s not an easy time for institutions, and it’s not an easy time for students. We understand how fortunate we are to have such generous supporters.”

She said the college has begun a new strategic plan that considers finances, which she believes will contribute to the school enduring any potential monetary setback.

“We are confident the college will be able to weather this storm and continue on the positive trajectory that we have been,” she said.

W&J is offering pro-rated refunds to students for room and board, based on how long they were on campus, Jones said. They have not yet calculated a total cost amount for those refunds.

“We felt that was the fair thing to do,” Jones said. “We’re looking at each student’s situation individually.”

W&J’s fall numbers haven’t wavered, either. As of April 9, they’ve had more incoming freshmen make deposits than they’ve had on the same date in the past five years, Jones said.

“Most importantly, it’s a strong class in quality — these are students that we feel will be very successful at W&J,” she said.

She said the college is aware that, for many of their families, financial situations have changed significantly due to the pandemic.

“We’re going to do what we can to support our families and their needs,” Jones said.

By Patricia Older

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