COVID-19 leaves colleges struggling to plan for the future

Published: Apr. 16, 2020 at 6:01 PM EDT
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What does the COVID-19 crisis mean for higher education in our region? Colleges had to switch to online learning, and now, some are wondering whether students will be able to return in the fall, creating an uncertain economic future.

"You can't get wedded to any one of the scenarios," said David Provost, Middlebury College's executive vice president of finance and administration.

Provost says they aren't sure what form their 2020-2021 school year will take.

"Everything from no fall to a residential experience to a hybrid experience. We are exploring all options," he said.

Provost says they're committed to paying all faculty and staff through June 30, but they're estimating $9 million in financial losses this year just due to COVID-19, and at least that much next fiscal year, too.

They are also bracing for fewer dollars from donors.

"Our expectation is we will see a slowdown in fundraising over the next three months," he said.

They're not the only ones facing uncertainty over finances. The Vermont State College system was already in the red. Now, it's facing a $10 million operating loss this year and not sure if it can fully reopen in the fall. VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding on Thursday said they were assessing all of their options for their five campuses.

Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Baruth says it's up to the trustees to make the decisions but lawmakers will help if they can.

"The state college system is facing huge shortfalls, as is the state. So we're not in a position to swoop in and magically make the problem go away," said Baruth, D/P-Chittenden County.

COVID uncertainties hit all colleges. Even Ivy Leagues are affected. Dartmouth College's school paper reported the college has instituted a hiring freeze through the end of the year and no wage increases to cut their losses.

"We are in brand new territory," said Barbara Brittingham, the president of the New England Commission of Higher Education.

The New England Commission of Higher Education says because many families still don't know what they will do in the fall, schools don't either.

"We just don't know what's going on. And colleges and universities are doing a lot of trying to figure out if we know this by such-and-such a date, what do we do? If we don't know this until later, how does that change our plans? So there's just a lot up in the air right now," Brittingham said.

Middlebury accepted a few hundred more students than usual to be safe and hopes Vermont's lower COVID-19 caseload will be attractive.

"The value of a rural community and rural college, I think, will work to our benefit come fall," Provost said.

One way Middlebury is going to offset their financial losses is by drawing on their endowment. They had a $1.1 billion endowment before COVID-19. Middlebury says schools are now stress-testing those endowments to see what happens if they shrink.