Pandemic causing ‘major decline’ in low-income college student enrollment

Officials detail fall reopening plans

Central Michigan University | Susan J. Demas

Some Michigan colleges have seen a “major decline” in enrollment of low-income, Pell-eligible first-year students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to higher education officials who spoke Wednesday before members of a state House subcommittee.

Students with families making about $50,000 or less a year are not enrolling at the same rates because of pandemic-caused economic insecurities, said Colby Cesaro, vice president of Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities (MICU). 

“Many students who are concerned about going to college right now are not necessarily reaching out to financial aid offices, even though all of the colleges and universities in the state have the flexibility to adjust financial aid packages as the family situation changes,” Cesaro told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and Community Colleges. 

State Rep. Scott VanSingel (R-Grant), the subcommittee chair, said it was “concerning” that colleges are experiencing the decline, adding the subcommittee will “be in touch” with MICU. 

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Cesaro and several other officials representing independent and community colleges and state universities also made note of the large fiscal impact the pandemic has had on their institutions. 

It has left big questions in revenues for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years, officials said. High costs are piling up from a sweeping conversion to virtual instruction, increased sanitation protocol on campuses and refunding students for housing and dining as campuses shut down.

Institutions also are facing a drop in aid from the state as Michigan itself faces a $3 billion loss of revenue for the current 2020 fiscal year. For instance, Muskegon Community College could see a $1.7 million loss of state aid, according to MCC President Dale Nesbary. 

Profits that would ordinarily come from summer programs like athletic events or conferences also could not be accounted for because they were canceled. 

On the positive front, a “pivot” to online coursework for higher education institutions to avoid higher rates of virus transmission was not as challenging as it might have been for other economic sectors, said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. A portion of community college students already take at least one online class, he said. 

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Other officials agreed the move to virtual instruction worked. But the added cost of maintaining technologies to sustain virtual instruction, like upping campus WI-FI speeds or providing laptops to students, created issues. 

“The fiscal impact has been tremendous, as you might imagine,” said Dan Hurley, the CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU).

The association estimates a $571 million collective hit to 15 public universities it represents this fiscal year and a $1.07 to $1.27 billion hit next fiscal year, Hurley said. 

“The CARES Act dollars [from Congress] were helpful, but nowhere close to offsetting that loss,” he said. 

Hurley told subcommittee members he is well-aware of state revenue constraints.

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“Obviously, all states coast-to-coast are looking for flexibility with the CARES Act,” he said. “That would certainly play into your deliberations and then what the prospects are for a fourth stimulus that might help states and higher education.”

Reopening campuses in the fall

Representatives for two major Michigan universities also laid out their plans for reopening campuses in the fall.

Teresa Sullivan, Michigan State University’s interim provost, said the university’s reopening committee has three priorities: keeping everybody safe, ensuring academic success of students and keeping in mind how pandemic-era decisions might have different impacts on different people.

MSU plans to reconfigure indoor physical spaces like classrooms, residence halls, laboratories, lounge areas and dining areas to follow social distancing protocols. Dining areas also will reduce seat capacities. Students, staff and faculty are expected to wear cloth facial coverings on campus, except in certain circumstances, Sullivan said. 

“Everyone will be encouraged to wash their hands frequently,” Sullivan said. “There will be hand sanitizer available. We’ll be doing much more frequent sanitizing of touch points.” 

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Central Michigan University President Robert Davies said CMU also will incorporate social distancing practices into classrooms and residence halls to decrease student density. Technology will be embraced, some classes will be held in more spacious venues and there will be limits on how many students can enroll in one class, he said. 

CMU is instituting a high-flexibility program that allows students to make daily decisions on whether to attend classes in-person or through a synchronous online session, Davies said. 

He also told lawmakers he recognizes the need for operations to be altered, even as CMU prepares for possible changes in state support.

“Institutions like Central Michigan University have an important role to play in equipping leaders … for success in the modern workplace,” Davies said. “We are well-positioned to partner with you to develop the highly-skilled, well-educated workforce Michigan needs to improve our economic outlook and propel us forward.”