Small Colleges Facing Virus Cash Crunch Want Help From Congress

Well-funded private colleges and top state universities, defying President Donald Trump’s urging to reopen, plan to hold classes mostly or entirely online in the fall. For many small schools that make up the majority of private colleges in the U.S., limited resources are forcing tougher choices.

Colleges say it’s critical for Congress to provide more aid to cover the new costs of operating campuses, including safety measures such as coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment. Legislation (S. 4112) introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) would send $132 billion to colleges to provide direct aid to students and to help campuses cover the costs of reopening.

“Higher education institutions are very concerned about how they’re going to provide adequate education this coming fall, whether they do it online or in-person,” Murray told reporters about her bill. “Their needs are the same as K-12 schools in terms of sanitation, PPE, and looking at ways they can social distance.”

Many colleges are holding off on firming up fall semester plans, or say they are moving forward with classes on campus with face masks required and dorm occupancy limited. Those decisions reflect student demands for in-person classes, college leaders say. Those colleges also depend heavily on tuition payments and room and board, ramping up pressure to get students on campus.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said a Republican proposal would include $105 billion for education “so that educators have the resources they need to safely reopen,” although it’s not clear how much would go to K-12 schools or colleges.

The Senate will renew talks this week on another major coronavirus aid package. Any deal likely will come too late to shape colleges’ fall plans. Without reopening in person, private residential colleges risk losing students to cheaper options closer to home.

(Photo: Brian Harkin/Getty Images)
A student walks in front of Southern Methodist University’s Dallas Hall.

“The value proposition of smaller private colleges is very much tied to providing an on-campus experience where students may have close interactions with faculty members, where they may have unique experiences tied to being at a smaller school in a particular location,” said Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Fear of Sitting Out

Elite private colleges can plan for mostly online instruction in the fall without fears about the effect on their prestige of tuition revenue, said Teresa Amott, president of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

It’s a different story for small colleges, she said. They “fear that if they can’t provide some in-person education, the students will sit the year out.”

Knox College students will be allowed on campus in small groups and tested for the coronavirus when they return. The college also plans to reduce dorm occupancy and use a mix of online and in-person instruction to limit the number of students in class.

“We’re saying to people that you’re going to come back to Knox, but its going to be a different Knox,” Amott said.

Denisa Gándara, an assistant professor of higher education at Southern Methodist University, said public colleges and universities are already taking a hit from cuts to state revenue as the pandemic forced millions of job losses. Tuition-dependent schools are likely to be hurt as well, she said.

“I would expect many students to choose not to attend private nonprofit institutions, which tend to be more expensive on average and instead to enroll in public institutions,” Gándara said. “Geography will also play a huge role in students’ college choices. Many may choose to be closer to home.”

Safety Measures

Some small colleges say they have an advantage over larger state universities in planning for in-person teaching this year.

The University of San Diego, a private Catholic institution that has 2,600 students living on campus in a typical year, is planning 18 campus temperature-screening locations. The school will also test students for the coronavirus before they return and reduce class sizes and dorm occupancy — steps harder to pull off at a larger university.

The university is spending half a million dollars on the temperature stations alone. And it will lose money from suspending outside rental of campus facilities and from housing fewer students in residence halls.

Students will be better off on campus than at home or in crowded housing options near the school, James Harris, University of San Diego’s president, said.

“In the long run, we’ll be a stronger institution because of all of this,” he said.

The financial pain if students opt against returning in the fall would be substantial at San Diego and similar institutions. Tuition generates three-quarters of his university’s revenue, Harris said. A smaller freshman class would be a drag on the university’s budget for years.

“If you have people back, and they’re fully engaged, and feel like they’re getting what they expect, you would hope your enrollment remains strong,” Harris said. “We believe we actually can deliver that and that we can pivot.”

Some HCBUs Wary

With coronavirus cases surging in South Carolina, Franklin Evans, president of Voorhees College, a private historically black college in Denmark, said this month classes would be offered fully online in the fall. Earlier, he had considered options including fully reopening campus and offering some classes online.

Atlanta-area HBCUs Morehouse College and Spelman College followed suit this week, scrapping plans to reopen their campuses for in-person classes this fall.

Voorhees projects it will lose $900,000 by keeping campus closed this fall.

“Most presidents are concerned about the finances. As a private HBCU, we’re no different,” Evans said. “But I didn’t want the finances to be the overriding factor in my decision.”

It’s “extremely important” for Congress to provide more aid for colleges to weather the crisis, Evans said. “This pandemic is not over. Far from it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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