As the COVID-19 pandemic brings the U.S. economy to a screeching halt, colleges and universities aren’t immune from the financial strain that comes with the rapid changes and cancellations necessitated by social distancing guidelines.
In March, President Richard Myers told the Kansas Board of Regents that Kansas State could lose $22 million during the pandemic. Vice president for communications and marketing Jeff Morris said the actual losses facing the university could be far greater.
“That was a very early estimate in the process,” Morris said. “That was kind of everybody’s first best guess.”
The original $22 million figure was gathered via a survey sent out to all the campus colleges and departments. The estimate includes losses from housing refunds and any number of other financial constraints, Morris said. That number is expected to fluctuate throughout the semester. At least one more survey could go out before the semester is over.
“I will say that we’re probably going to do this again, and go back out because we’re further downstream, and I think people will have a somewhat better idea of what we’re looking at today,” Morris said. “They’ll probably have to do it again before the end of the semester, just because there’s a lot of variables we don’t know.”
At this point in time, Provost Charles Taber said there’s just so much unknown, including how long this pandemic will keep the university in a limited operations status.
“We’re not seeing everything now in terms of the actual costs, and there will be costs going forward even after we’re back in operation,” Taber said.
He predicted the total losses would surpass the original $22 to $23 million estimate.
Another uncertainty is federal funding. In the third phase of the coronavirus relief bill, K-State is projected to receive about $12.6 million from the multibillion dollar Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
On April 9, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addressed college and university presidents in a letter.
“These are unprecedented and challenging times for your students and for you,” DeVos said. “I know you find yourselves grappling with issues you never imagined, and I want to assure you we are here to support you in your missions and to quickly provide the resources and flexibilities you need to continue educating your students.”
The first half of the emergency relief is supposed to roll out soon, Morris said in an emailed statement. It is earmarked specifically for emergency financial aid awards. However, Morris said it’s unclear when the second half will arrive.
Looking toward the future
As the pandemic progresses and the period of social distancing stretches, Taber said the university is preparing for the prospect of holding orientation and enrollment programs online. The same could be said for summer classes and possibly even fall classes.
“But even with all this effort, you have to believe there’s going to be an impact on enrollment,” Taber said. “So that’s just one dimension that is unknown at this point.”
One thing that’s still up in the air is prospective students and future enrollments. Morris said the university is looking at the possibility of international student enrollment declining due to travel bans.
In the last few months, K-State has made multiple decisions in reaction to the public health crisis, but Morris said that strategy is changing.
“We’re starting to shift more from crisis management into more of a long term strategy, to look and see what’s the university going to look like coming out of this,” Morris said. “One of the things that we’re looking at is how does this affect the university moving forward, and how do we come out of this stronger and better able to serve our students.”