COVID-19 Could Be End of Line for Some Regional Colleges

By: - June 4, 2020 12:00 am

A high school graduate waves during a distanced graduation in Louisiana. Regional public colleges across the country are struggling with loss of income and how best to educate their students next fall. Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

The Vermont State Colleges System, which includes three four-year colleges and a community college, had been in financial trouble for years before the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

Now system leaders are bracing for an enrollment drop that could hit 20% at residential campuses and a budget deficit as high as million for fiscal 2021. In April, then-Chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed a radical solution: shutting down Northern Vermont University’s campuses and a Vermont Technical College campus for good. 

While Vermont’s situation is extreme, Spaulding’s proposal shows that the pandemic could have a devastating impact on colleges and universities already struggling to pay the bills — particularly so-called regional institutions that aren’t nationally known or highly selective, focus on teaching rather than research and serve mostly local students.

Yet plans to reduce offerings or close campuses have met with significant opposition as state legislatures begin to discuss setting school budgets for next fall.

“The reaction in opposition to some of those ideas is swift, because people can read between the lines and see that they’re not talking about a big infusion of cash to solve this problem,” said Brian Prescott, vice president at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit that helps higher education institutions with strategic planning. 

Spaulding’s plan met with such strong opposition from faculty, students, alumni and lawmakers that he had to resign.

The Lyndon campus of Northern Vermont University, which educates about 1,200 students, is a major employer and cultural center in Republican state Sen. Joe Benning’s rural district. Benning graduated from the Lyndon campus — then known as Lyndon State College — in 1979 and lives nearby. 

“If we lose that as an institution,” he said of the college, “the impact on this town would be tremendous.”

So far, federal aid has helped institutions defray the cost of sending students home this spring and refunding room and board charges. Colleges won’t be sure of enrollment changes until classes begin in the fall. 

Lawmakers in many states, including Vermont, have yet to pass budgets for next fiscal year or to adjust existing budgets to account for lower-than-expected tax collections. And congressional Democrats are pushing a new coronavirus aid package, including billion to help states fill budget holes.

Yet already scores of public universities — from flagships such as the University of Colorado at Boulder to regional institutions such as Eastern Michigan University — have furloughed administrators, faculty or other staff, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education tally. Some universities, such as Bowling Green State University in Ohio, have announced layoffs.

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Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.