Private and public colleges across the country are considering cuts to payrolls, staff and academic programs due to budget constraints and enrollment declines wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
The president of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle announced Monday a “sobering moment in the life of the college,” noting a financial emergency for the school of 600 students.
“The challenges we are facing harbor within them vibrant opportunities to reinvent what Cornish looks like as we move into the third decade of the 21st century,” said school President Raymond Tymas-Jones.
Last week, the Pennsylvania State Higher Education System told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about speeding up its five-year plan to cut 350 faculty positions to two years, citing financial turmoil caused by the pandemic.
Earlier this month, Ithaca College announced it would slash 130 positions due to a loss of nearly 1,000 students — or about 15% of its undergraduate population — this fall.
“The college remains committed to student access and affordability, as well as to providing an environment that fosters academic success and a sense of belonging — which means we must also maintain a sustainable size,” college spokesman David Maley said in an email.
Years of stagnant enrollment, combined with the onset of the coronavirus, have squeezed colleges’ funding, and the evidence is starting to trickle in.
Notably, 55% of more than 300 college presidents reported enrollment decline this fall in a survey published last week by the American Council on Education (ACE). A larger survey in September by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found a 2.5% decline in enrollment since last fall.
This comes for colleges already seeing huge shifts in demographics that portend worry down the road.
“It’s a huge challenge,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president for ACE. “Particularly in New England, upstate New York, the Rust Belt, the Great Plains and the Upper Plains, it affects small, moderately selective private liberal arts colleges and it affects small state colleges, and some of them are facing an existential crisis.”
Before the pandemic, higher education was in the midst of a reinvention, thanks to enrollment stagnation as families rethought the cost of college. But for many schools, COVID-19 accelerated — or exacerbated — the need for financial reform.
Doane University in Crete, Nebraska, said last week that it’s proposing to eliminate 17 academic programs, including a gender studies minor, a film major and the college’s honors program. A spokesperson told The Washington Times that the plan is only preliminary.
“We aren’t facing financial exigency,” the spokesperson said. “We had pretty solid enrollment for our online programs, but it’s one of those things where a number of factors go into it. We got through COVID not really having to make many layoffs.”
Doane’s proposal will be finalized in November.
Economists with the Tax Policy Center have estimated that more than $200 billion could be cut from state budgets beginning next year, including money for higher education.
Meanwhile, some post-secondary industry disruptors have predicted the end of college as it’s known.
In the aftermath of the pandemic’s arrival last spring, when 9 out of 10 college students worldwide were sent home, stock prices rose for for-profit colleges and online adaptive curriculum services. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also estimated that colleges shed 337,000 jobs between February and August.
To date, cuts by the largest public universities have been contained mostly to athletics.
In September, The Associated Press reported that 230 college sports programs had been cut. The University of Minnesota announced it would discontinue men’s gymnastics and track and field. Ohio Wesleyan University cut women’s golf.
In a policy paper, the Urban Institute forecast in increase an enrollment come the fall of 2021. For now, colleges are facing financial troubles in the immediate term.
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