Uncertain on how coronavirus will affect enrollment, SC colleges brace for drop in revenue
William Best was set to start his doctorate degree at the University of Oklahoma this fall. Now, he wonders if that will happen.
Best, who graduated from Clemson in 2019 with a bachelor's degree in microbiology, was accepted into Oklahoma's doctorate program for biochemistry. His original plan was to work in Greenville until the end of May before moving to Oklahoma this summer.
"I haven't even been able to go out there to look for where I'm going to live," Best said. "On top of that, the school says they're not even sure if they're going to have classes in the fall."
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Best isn't alone. Students across the country are uncertain what fall will bring and if campuses will remain closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since Best's program is in biochemistry, he isn't sure how he can complete research without going into a lab. He knows several students who have already changed their plans, anticipating that campuses will remain closed.
"I feel like the most likely thing would be I delay going for a semester," Best said. "Worst case scenario, if everything stays shut down for a long period of time, I may just not go."
The coronavirus pandemic has brought about uncertainty across the globe, with colleges wondering if they'll be able to re-open in the fall and just how many students will enroll.
The pandemic is another blow to agencies that spent years crippled from low funding after the 2008 Recession. Even as tuition exploded over the years, enrollment still continued to slowly climb across the state until about 2012, when it started dropping for the first time in decades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Before the pandemic, the University of South Carolina had already started planning for an 8% decline in college-going students from 2017 to 2029.
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With declining enrollment, revenue losses from shuttered campuses and state funding that has yet to catch up to 2007 levels even before accounting for inflation, some colleges could be looking at the beginning of the end.
"Even just a month of this could exceed $100 million in losses, and those are staggering numbers," said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw. "Some of our universities are not in a position to weather that for very long. We could lose universities if the state doesn't step up to help them."
Brad Pochard, associate vice president for enrollment at Furman University, said one of the university's biggest concerns is a drop in out-of-state enrollment — only about 60% of its students are in-state or from Georgia or North Carolina, and about 40% of Furman's enrollment comes from other states or countries.
"There could be a drop, and we've planned for that a little bit," Pochard said. "There's a lot of talk out there about — are students going to be willing to go to college as far away as they once were?"
Pochard said the university has contingency plans in case enrollment does drop for the fall semester — the university started accepting students on its wait list earlier than normal and is hoping that a coronavirus relief fund for students will help with enrollment.
On Wednesday, Furman announced it had re-opened admissions and is again accepting applications for the fall semester — the university had previously stopped accepting applications in January, which was the final deadline to apply.
To mitigate revenue loss, Bob Jones University has already announced staff furloughs and is trying to raise $2.5 million in scholarships for new and returning students.
A spokesperson with Anderson University said it is too early to tell what fall enrollment will look like, but that school officials are encouraged by the number of students who have already committed. The university, like most schools, has pushed back the deadline to commit from May 1 to June 1 to help boost fall enrollment.
But Pochard said Furman officials are perhaps more concerned about fall 2021 — with campuses closed, high school juniors have not been able to tour schools like they did in past years.
In the span of a few years, state funding for colleges was cut in half
Before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the state’s budget, higher education institutions in South Carolina had started to regain state funding close to the level it was at more than a decade ago.
The past 12 years have left colleges in South Carolina reeling. State budget cuts made during the 2008 recession stunted their growth even as enrollment continued to slowly climb.
By 2012, the state General Assembly had slashed each school’s funding by nearly half of what it was in 2007, according to state data.
During that time, schools froze positions, cut jobs and drastically raised tuition.
"Instead of it being viewed as a societal good that the state would, in large part, fund, we shifted it dramatically to the students in two forms — tuition and fees," Sheheen said.
From 2008 to 2016, the two largest institutions in the state – Clemson University and the University of South Carolina – increased tuition by about 35%.
This year, most colleges had the smallest tuition increase in decades, with tuition increasing at Clemson by a mere 1% and .6% at the University of South Carolina. On average, most four-year institutions in the state only increased tuition by .3% this year — a huge drop compared to past years when average tuition increased about 3% annually.
Overall, things had been looking up for colleges.
In early March, the state House of Representatives passed its version of the 2020-21 budget that funded institutions at levels closer to what they were in 2007 than any of the previous years. Though the budget had not gone through the Senate or governor, the state was looking at a financially strong year with a nearly $2 billion surplus.
Now, all of that has changed.
Sheheen said the nearly $2 billion surplus was calculated based on leftover funds from the 2019-20 budget and a projected increase in revenue next year. The state is still on track to end this year in the black on June 30, but the biggest uncertainty is what will happen with next year's budget.
"We know that this year's surplus, which we would have spent next year, is gone. That's not going to happen," Sheheen said. "And we really don't know what next year's budget is going to look like."
Colleges could face ethical dilemma of raising tuition during coronavirus
Colleges are looking at large drops in revenue from closed campuses, canceled athletic events and refunds to students. Clemson has projected it will spend about $22 million this semester, primarily on refunds, because of the coronavirus.
Rusty Monhollon, president of the Commission on Higher Education, said public institutions across the state are looking at a collective loss of about $117 million and a loss of $100 million or more for private institutions.
The federal CARES Act allots some funding to institutions for coronavirus aid primarily based on the number of Pell Grant recipients at the schools, but it's unlikely to make up the total revenue loss for most schools.Clemson University is set to receive at least $13.6 million in the first wave of funding from the act, and the University of South Carolina will get about $21.4 million. At least half of those funds must go to students as financial aid grants.
Sheheen said the state has already taken steps to allow cost-saving measures during the pandemic — the General Assembly has agreed to suspend pension increases for one year and allow colleges to furlough staff as early as May, pending a formal vote.
While the commission has long criticized colleges for continuously raising tuition, the schools face an added ethical dilemma this year — raising tuition at a time when students and families are also suffering financially from the coronavirus.
"I think it would be very, very difficult for an institution to raise tuition at this point," Monhollon said. "Students are going to be under tremendous strain as a result of the outbreak and the response to it, and I think an institution would raise its tuition probably at its own peril."
Sheheen said higher ed's reliance on tuition and fees is putting them in a precarious position, and it stems from years of being underfunded at the state level.
"The system we've built, the dysfunction of it, is really shining through right now," Sheheen said. "The state abandoned its historic role in funding universities over the last decade."
Ariel Gilreath is a watchdog reporter focusing on education and family issues with The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Contact her at email@example.com and on Twitter @ArielGilreath.