Pandemic impacts rippling across higher education | State News

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented colleges and universities with financial challenges that will likely extend for multiple years and may not be sustainable for all institutions, heads of public and private universities told state lawmakers Tuesday.

“We don’t view this as a one-year deal,” University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan told the Higher Education Committee. “We view this as a two- to three- to four-year deal, and I will say Madam Chairman, there are universities and colleges in New England who won’t survive this. What we’re trying to do at UMass is make sure at the end of this crisis that we still have five UMass campuses that are all nationally ranked and that are successful.”

The committee, chaired by Sen. Anne Gobi and Rep. Jeff Roy, heard virtual testimony from state education officials, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and heads of community colleges and private and public universities for an update on the field’s status amid the economic and logistical disruption of the pandemic.

Gobi, a Spencer Democrat, said the higher education sector has displayed “the patience of Job through all this but also the flexibility of Gumby,” and Roy described the role that higher education plays in the state’s economy. The Franklin Democrat said colleges and universities employ 136,000 Massachusetts residents, spend over $24.5 billion annually, and educate 500,000 students.

Colleges and universities across Massachusetts sent their students home in March as COVID-19 first took hold in the state, and many are continuing with remote learning this semester or have only allowed small numbers of students back on campus, with COVID-19 testing systems now in place.

The combination of new pandemic-related costs and the loss of revenue from room, board and other charges associated with having students on campus has put a squeeze on finances and jobs across higher education.

Education Secretary Peyser said many institutions are dipping into their reserves, cutting spending, or both because of new costs associated with COVID-19 adaptations combined with the “impact of long-term demographic trends, which are having a significant effect on enrollment and tuition revenue.”

The pandemic’s enrollment impacts appear to be playing out differently across institutions.

UMass Lowell announced Tuesday that it had welcomed its largest student body ever this fall, consisting of 18,394 students. And Middlesex Community College President James Mabry said some students are choosing to take lower-priced classes closer to home in the state’s community college system, with plans to later transfer to a four-year school.

State university enrollment is down over last year, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge said, and history suggests “a multi-year emergence from this decline is likely.”

Wellesley College President Dr. Paula Johnson, who testified on behalf of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, said the private schools have seen a significant number of students decide to take gap years, and international student numbers have also dropped off. Meanwhile, she said, costs for testing and other pandemic responses are ongoing.

“This is a grave time for a number of both privates, and I think it’s also really for publics,” Johnson said. “I think that the astronomical costs that have been incurred on so many levels … have really been a tremendous strain, and I think if you couple that with loss of revenue, if you’re a residential college with room and board and other incoming revenue, it can become very much unsustainable.”

Ahead of a summit Wednesday where economists will aim to help state budget-writers get a better handle on revenue expectations so they can craft a spending plan for the remainder of the fiscal year that began July 1, speakers at Tuesday’s hearing asked lawmakers to ensure that the state’s public education system be funded at the same levels as last year.

They also said they hoped to receive more federal funding, but the amount and timing of any additional relief dollars out of Washington, D.C remains unclear. The U.S. House passed its latest version of a $2.2 trillion relief package, which Congresswoman Lori Trahan’s office said included nearly $39 billion for postsecondary education, and President Trump on Tuesday tweeted that he had “instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business.”

Last year’s state budget funded the UMass line item at $564 million and included $298 million for community colleges and $277 million for state universities.

Mabry said level funding for the rest of the year would help community colleges continue to both train workers to help drive an economic recovery and “be the engine of equity in the commonwealth.”

“We understand the challenges that the Legislature faces in the weeks and months ahead,” he said. “We need to be clear-eyed about what we’ll need to appropriately meet our dual mission of open access and workforce development. Therefore, it is more important than ever to protect our state funding and appropriately level-fund our institutions during this uncertain time.”

Max Page, the vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the union agrees with the request for level-funding, and also asked lawmakers to tie the funding to a commitment to stop layoffs and furloughs on public higher education campuses. If more federal money comes in, Page said, current layoffs should be rolled back.

“The experience of us as educators is that once cuts are made, they take years and years, if ever, to be reversed,” he said.

The most recent Department of Public Health data, from last Wednesday, showed more than 1 million molecular COVID-19 tests associated with higher education have been administered in Massachusetts, and that higher education-related testing had identified a total of 847 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago said his department is monitoring public health metrics along with changes to federal financial aid regulations and budget matters. He said faculty across public higher education have done an “admirable job” in reinventing the way they work.

“Our students are my biggest concern,” Santiago said. “From anecdotal reports, we know of heightened levels of anxiety, stress and depression. Campuses are reporting increases in food and housing insecurity. There has never been a more difficult time to be a college student.”

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