The COVID-19 pandemic has already changed the way colleges and universities are teaching students, forcing a move this spring and summer away from in-person classroom learning to remote education.
Moving forward, the virus and the unknowns surrounding it have the potential to fundamentally alter the short-term and long-range future of higher education in South Dakota and across the country. One thing seems certain: The pandemic will change who goes to college, how they are taught, what campuses look like, how they operate, and how higher education is funded and at what level.
“I do think the landscape in higher education for South Dakota has the potential to look very different, depending on how we all get through this pandemic,” said Sheila Gestring, president of the University of South Dakota.
The challenges and changes will likely fall into two major categories: the logistics of living, learning and teaching on and off campus; and the broad financial implications of the potential for significantly reduced enrollment.
On a logistical level, in-class learning could decrease and more teaching may shift online, reducing the future need for new classroom buildings, labs and other brick-and-mortar structures. The Board of Regents announced in early May that state universities would hold in-person classes on campuses in the fall, and most private colleges have followed suit, though that could change.
The virus may force colleges to enact strict safety measures. Gestring suggested during a recent Board of Regents meeting that masks may be required for everyone on the USD campus this fall, that hand sanitizer will be omnipresent and that plexiglass barriers might separate teachers from students.
But the biggest and most long-term impact of the pandemic is likely to be financial for the institutions and those who attend, teach or work on campuses.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put unprecedented financial challenges on the American higher-education system, according to David Tandberg, a vice president for policy research at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
The pandemic is likely to result in reduced student enrollment, reducing the main revenue driver for most colleges across the country. Spending, meanwhile, has risen during the pandemic.
“This is like the perfect storm when it comes to a negative financial hit on our institutions of higher education,” Tandberg said. “They’re getting hit on all ends.”
South Dakota public universities have already taken a big fiscal hit: Regents officials told News Watch that the six schools in the state system reimbursed $16 million to students for tuition, fees, housing, meals and parking after shifting to remote learning in the spring semester.
Some national experts have predicted enrollment in the fall 2020 semester could fall by 15% to 20% at colleges across the country. Most South Dakota colleges are seeing signs that fewer students than normal are enrolling for the fall.
Fewer students may choose to live in on-campus housing, dine at university food-service outlets and spend money in the cities where universities are located. Some students — many whose families are facing financial challenges created by high unemployment and income declines —may decide to skip a year of college or forgo attending a university altogether.
College sports may be put on hold or held without fans in the stands, cutting off a significant revenue source for schools and the communities in which they reside. As a result, a host of cuts or cost-saving measures are possible at schools in South Dakota and across the country. Holding positions open, delaying construction projects, laying employees off or mandating unpaid furloughs, and possibly raising tuition and fees, are all on the table.
“If some of those experts are right, and enrollments decline the way they’re talking, it is not an overstatement to say this will challenge higher education like it hasn’t been challenged in decades,” Gestring said in an interview.
Colleges and universities received some help from the CARES Act bailout passed by Congress, receiving in total $14 billion of the $2 trillion overall assistance package.
The South Dakota public university system saw falling enrollment before the pandemic. Overall enrollment in fall 2019 was about 34,500 students, down 3.4% from the prior year. That followed a 2% decline in fall 2018 compared with fall 2017.
Heather Forney, the regents vice president for finance, said each state university has created a local task force to examine enrollment, create contingency plans for the unknowns and try to make appropriate hiring decisions. The uncertainty has made accurate planning almost impossible, she said.
Forney noted that the decision has been made not to raise tuition for the coming school year. She added that the final enrollment data will be critical to budgeting wisely in the coming year. A 15% enrollment decline would amount to a $48 million loss to the university system, she said.
Shannan Nelson, executive vice president and CFO of Augustana University in Sioux Falls, said economic concerns are top of mind for parents right now. “With the hits the economy has taken, our parents are in a position right now that is much different than they thought they would be in,” Nelson said. “Is college tuition the top of their mind right now?”
Augustana, a private college with about 2,300 students, is expecting 100 to 150 fewer students, Nelson said. The university is anticipating a $2 million to $3 million financial hit from the pandemic.
As of early May, USD had seen about an 8% drop in financial-aid filings by prospective students, Gestring said. She said administrators at USD and other schools must avoid what is being called the “death spiral” of higher education, in which the cost steadily rises as the quality steadily falls.
As fiscal challenges arise, the university will enact “low-impact measures” to reduce spending, such as leaving open positions unfilled. USD reimbursed students about $2.5 million after closing for the spring semester, Gestring said. To compensate, the university has shelved a plan to build a $2.5 million parking lot on the west side of the DakotaDome, Gestring said.
South Dakota State University President Barry Dunn said it the university could see an enrollment drop of 300 to 500 students in fall 2020. SDSU took a significant hit in reimbursements paid out in the spring semester when it paid $6.7 million back to students for housing, meals and parking. Dunn is concerned that research endeavors and the university’s extension efforts may suffer during the pandemic, especially in regard to research that requires lab work or in-person contact with subjects.
Dunn also expressed concern about the potential that fall sports, including Division I football and other revenue-generating sports, could be damaged by the pandemic. Dunn said the decision on whether sports will be held or whether fans will be allowed to attend is mainly in the hands of the National Collegiate Athletics Association.
Mount Marty College is bucking the trend of falling enrollment amid the pandemic, said President Marcus Long.
“Our admissions are running 60% ahead of where we were last year,” Long said.
A slate of capital projects has made the main campus of the Benedictine liberal arts college in Yankton more attractive to students, as has the plan to add a football program in 2021, Long said. The college built a state-of-the-art nursing center, erected a new residence hall and is finishing up a $15 million field house, he said.
Oglala Lakota College, a private school of about 1,200 mostly Native American students in Kyle, is expecting an enrollment decline of only about 5% due to the pandemic, which President Thomas Short Bull said will not create any long-range financial hardships for the school. The CARES Act has been particularly helpful for OLC and its students, he said. The college received about $3 million in funding from the CARES Act, $1.3 million paid directly to students in need and the rest helping to fund college operations.
Part of the money was used to prepare students for remote learning in the fall semester, Short Bull said. The college purchased 600 laptops and 300 cell phones to lend to students who needed to become connected to online learning, he said.
Short Bull said the college will not bring back students for face-to-face learning in the fall.
“It’s too risky to bring students back to campus,” he said. “I think that’s a big mistake to bring students back.”