Will students show up, pay for college classes? Examining the financial fallout

A view of the Central State University campus in Wilberforce. TY GREENLEES/STAFF
A view of the Central State University campus in Wilberforce. TY GREENLEES/STAFF

After sending students home, holding virtual graduations and refunding more than $170 million this spring, Ohio colleges and universities are now grappling with how they’ll offer instruction for the fall semester and wondering how many students will be on campus.

May is typically when freshmen commit to enrolling and put down deposits, though many schools bumped that deadline to June.

Some colleges are planning for scenarios that include online learning, in-person classes or a blended combination. But also uncertain is whether campus life will include bustling dorms, large lectures, hands-on labs, packed football stadiums and the other offerings that are part of the quintessential on-campus experience.

“I’ve seen some national data that show particularly the very expensive private (schools) might suffer. We might gain some students of those who decide that Vanderbilt at $40,000 a year isn’t worth it if there is not a face-to-face experience and they’d rather go to Miami or Wright State. Having said that, I think folks will question that,” said Bruce Johnson of the Inter-University Council, which represents Ohio’s 14 public universities. “That’s why we are definitely planning on being open and having students on campus.”

Johnson added that society isn’t likely to return to “normal” anytime soon and no one really knows what it’ll look like by fall.

“Most of our colleges and universities are making plans for in-person, on-campus instruction. I think they know very well that they need to provide the safest, healthiest conditions for students, faculty, staff and the public,” said Randy Gardner, Ohio’s chancellor of higher education.

That might include some alternative scheduling and online instruction to avoid crowded classrooms, Gardner said, and college administrators intend to make the on-campus experience “as positive as possible in the fall.”

Political science major and Wright State University junior Jackson Cornwell is from the Dayton area and lives on campus when classes are in session. He said he’d love to to return to campus, however, if all classes were offered online he’d stay home to save money.

“Wright State students have done a great job transitioning online, both in the classroom and with student life, so (the university) almost made it easy for me to justify staying home with everything still online,” he said.

What’s the financial fallout?

The largest public university system in the country — California State — announced it will not hold in-person classes in the fall on its 23 campuses.

Some students are thinking about taking a year off or taking classes closer to home, rather than pay top dollar for something that falls short of the full-campus experience.

A survey released in April by Simpson Scarborough, a higher education consulting firm, found one in five high school seniors who had been planning to go to a four-year residential university were not likely to attend college next term. The survey, which polled high school seniors as well as current college students, found that half of the students reported their family's financial situation impacted by COVID19.

Wright State University trustee Tom Gunlock said he expects enrollment, which has already declined, to drop further.

Already, universities faced pressure on multiple fronts: parents questioning whether college was worth taking on debt, declining numbers in K-12 schools and revenue pressures, he said.

“I wish I had a magic ball. It’s going to be tough for a lot of colleges who were on the edge already,” Gunlock said, arguing Ohio has too many colleges competing to serve the same students. He added, “Wright State is going to have trouble. I’ll tell you that.”

Wright State said refunds or credits due to students exceed $3 million and summer enrollment has been hit, resulting in an expected summer enrollment decrease of 17 percent. Budget deficits could range from $11 million to $50 million, according to projections presented to WSU trustees.

“We’ve always had structural issues. This (the global pandemic) is only going to exacerbate it. So how do we work together to fix it? It is fixable. How do we work together to fix it?” WSU President Susan Edwards said.

University of Dayton announced furloughs for 450 employees and 60 layoffs this summer.

Urbana University, a private school that became a branch campus of Franklin University a few years ago, announced April 21 that it would close after the current semester ends.

More than 72% of college presidents expect to lay off employees, almost 55% expect across-the-board budget cuts and almost 40% will likely cut research-and-development spending, according to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Gov. Mike DeWine said it’s too early to say what college campuses will look like in the fall.

“One of the great assets that we have in Ohio is our universities and colleges, both private and public. It was already a different time, particularly for the smaller schools, as the demographics have not been in their favor,” DeWine said. “With this pandemic, it creates additional problems so I’m fully aware of that … I know this is a time people need to rally around their alma mater and college and help them out because this is a very difficult time.”

University revenue comes from tuition, fees, room and board, state and federal funds, research grants and other sources, such as medical centers and athletics. While colleges can lay off or furlough employees to cut costs, a lot of expenses are fixed.

“Most institutions are carrying a significant debt load and that has to be paid back. You anticipate a relatively stable student environment, because that’s been the experience for the last 50 years. So having some questions about summer enrollment and fall enrollment and transition from face-to-face to online, these are disruptive to planning your financial situation on campus,” said Johnson of the Inter-University Council.

Will students pay full price for online classes?

Some coursework isn’t easily offered online — clinical experiences for nursing or physical therapy students, chemistry lab, student teaching — while classes that are predominately lecture-based are more easily adapted to online.

Some students are balking at paying full fare for online classes. Students at more than 25 universities across the country filed lawsuits that demand partial refunds for tuition and fees. They’re arguing that the quality of the online classes is well below the in-person instruction they’d receive on campus.

The Simpson Scarborough survey found 97% of college students switched to online instruction due to the COVID-19 crisis and 63% said online instruction is worse than in-person.

Across Ohio, colleges and universities sent most students home and rushed to set up systems to finish the semester via distant learning.

The abrupt transition wasn’t too difficult for community colleges that have long provided online classes for adult learners, Ohio Association of Community Colleges President Jack Hershey said.

Hershey said the state’s 23 community colleges could see an enrollment rise this summer and fall as students opt for community college while they wait for the coronavirus crisis to abate. During the economic crisis, families might opt for the lower cost community college route, he said.

Full-time students typically pay $4,000 a year in tuition at community colleges, $12,000 at 4-year public universities and $20,000 to $25,000 for 4-year private universities.

“Having said that, we’re still worried. We’re worried because we see an increase in demand coming and a decrease in revenue coming. That’s a scary situation,” Hershey said.

DeWine this week announced $775 million in immediate budget cuts, including $110 million to higher education spending.

Will it be safe for students on campus?

Hershey said people in his circle of friends are now calling him for advice on whether to send their children to campuses in the fall.

“On a very personal level, people are wondering, ‘Should I send my kid back, will it be safe, will there be disruption?’ Those kinds of questions are bouncing around parents’ heads right now.”

Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio President C. Todd Jones, however, said he believes that by August, those questions will be settled and enrollment numbers will rebound.

“Barring some major catastrophe, I believe most major residential colleges will be open,” said Jones, whose association represents 50 private institutions that serve 130,000 students.

The coronavirus crisis will push universities to accelerate decisions about narrowing down the number of majors offered, restructuring contracts and cutting administrative positions, he said.

Jones also predicted major changes to college cafeterias: no more salad bars or buffets or cereal dispensing machines. Instead, food will be offered in ways that minimize handling and dining hall seating may be limited.

Assuming students return to campuses, Johnson said universities are grappling with how to reduce lines, spread out people and “transition to something dramatically different.”

Johnson noted that 7,000 students live in dorms at Ohio State University’s main campus.

“It’s a big, big number to figure out how to house them, shower them and feed them,” he said. “Very challenging at this time.”

Students say they want back on campus

Several area college students the Dayton Daily News talked to said they would return to campus if their colleges and universities offer in-person classes but cut back on campus activities.

Peyton Barnes, a sophomore from Kettering who plays soccer at Walsh University in North Canton, said his sport would be a factor. But there’s no question he would return to campus to be with his friends. Besides, he learns better in a classroom setting, the education major said.

Essynce Mackey, a Chicago native who is finishing her sophomore year in business administration at Central State University, said she would also return to campus if in-person classes were held, even if activities were cut back. She would even return to campus if classes where held online only or if there was a combination, she said.

“No matter what, I will graduate in 2022,” Mackey said.

Caleb Danber of Beavercreek is currently a junior at Bowling Green State University and majoring in supply chain management. He would also return to campus, even if his university offered a combination of online and in-person classes.

However, if all classes were offered only online, Danber would consider taking the semester off and getting an internship or a co-op, even if it means his graduation is delayed.

“I just wouldn’t want to miss out on my senior year of college,” he said. “So I think I’d probably wait to be back on campus at least in some capacity.”

Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.

College by the numbers in Ohio:

14 public universities serving 276,000 students on main campuses, plus 40,000 on regional campuses, 87,000 employees

23 community colleges serving 176,000 students, 18,000 employees

50 private colleges and universities serving 130,000 students

Average annual tuition costs for full-time students:

$4,000 for community colleges

$12,000 for 4-year public universities

$20,000 to $25,000 for 4-year private universities