COVID-19’s trail of devastation at many NJ colleges

Layoffs, enrollment declines and students’ financial difficulties are among challenges, school leaders tell state Senate committee
Credit: John Meehan from Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
File photo: College lecture hall

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated New Jersey’s colleges, causing multimillion-dollar shortfalls that have forced layoffs, declines in enrollment, and financial and mental health difficulties for students, a number of college leaders, students and professors told a state Senate committee Thursday.

During a 2½-hour hearing, members of the Senate Higher Education Committee were told how schools pivoted to mostly remote learning, what their virus testing protocols are and how they relaxed grading policies. They also were told about the financial impact of the pandemic on the institutions — more than $400 million in lost revenues and increased costs.

Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University, put the state university’s cumulative pandemic-related deficit, including both lost revenues and increased costs, at $180 million despite having taken cost-cutting actions.

“Employees have taken pay cuts; employees have entered work sharing and furlough programs,” he said. “Senior administrators have taken both pay cuts and furloughs. A hiring freeze was put into place; a prohibition was instituted against all non-essential travel and other expenses. In June, shortly before I took office, the university declared a fiscal emergency.”

Ending in-person instruction

After the virus hit New Jersey last March, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered an end to in-person classes, which forced schools to refund some room-and-board payments. Because most classes are remote and schools are limiting the numbers of students who can live on campus, colleges continue to lose a large amount of revenue. And they have had to pay for upgrades to technology for online learning, as well as personal protective equipment and for additional cleaning of facilities that are open. New Jersey’s colleges have received more than $300 million from the federal CARES Act but officials say that has only partly covered their losses and expenses.

Joseph Marbach, president of Georgian Court University in Lakewood, said the “substantial refunds for room, board and other fees” that the state’s 14 independent colleges and universities gave last spring, as well as the decision by many to either freeze tuition or even reduce it, due to the financial difficulties faced by students and their families, has led to as much as $180 million in increased costs and lost revenue. So far, the schools have recouped about $80 million in federal funds but that is “less than half the need.”

Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan University, said the Glassboro university provided $16 million in refunds, spent more than $3 million on tech upgrades and $2 million on COVID-19-related expenses, with an overall loss of $51 million in revenue. Rowan reduced tuition this year by 10% “because we get, number one, that students are not really getting the full experience; and, number two, there were lots of students who were really financially hurting,” he said. The school has also paused $250 million in construction projects “and we don’t know whether we will reinstate them or freeze them permanently” and imposed a temporary hiring freeze.

Like many other colleges across the state, Rowan is facing further financial pressures due to declining enrollment.

“Suddenly, we noticed a large number of students dropping out over the past month,” he said. “A number of students are choosing to have a gap semester in the spring because they basically see light on the other end of the tunnel toward the fall, hoping that things will come back to normal.”

Enrollment losses have a ‘multiplier effect’

According to the state Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, enrollment dropped an average 2% at public four-year colleges, 7% at private four-year schools and 13% at community colleges.

“Many elected alternative courses of action, including deferral, pursuit of online degrees offered by non-New Jersey institutions, employment,” said Sue Henderson, president of New Jersey City University, which had a “record freshman class” but overall enrollment declined in the 2020-2021 school year due to reductions in returning students, transfers, international students and graduate students. “These declines have a multiplier effect. Tuition revenue drops but so does the revenue associated with housing and dining.”

Sue Tardi, president of the faculty union at William Paterson University in Wayne, said the school is planning for between 60 and 100 faculty layoffs in January 2022, additional layoffs of library and other professional staff and eliminating four undergraduate and six graduate programs.

“This planned layoff is unprecedented in the state of New Jersey,” she said. “It is unclear whether or not these anticipated layoffs at William Paterson will be followed by similar cuts at other state universities.”

Committee members were especially concerned about the financial and emotional impacts on students.

The digital divide

While Murphy has made closing the digital divide in K-12 public schools a priority, there was no such effort at the college level. Several college officials and students said the move to remote learning laid bare the little-known fact that many students had no access to computers and the internet at home but had been relying on school computers and Wi-Fi.

“Many students did not have the technology to transition to the virtual environment, so many of our college implemented laptop loaner programs to help bridge the digital divide,” said Barbara Gaba, president of Atlantic Cape Community College in Hamilton. “Students were also able to request laptop cameras, video cameras and/or hot spots in order to continue their education remotely.”

Nicholas LaBelle, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, said a recovery fund created by students helped provide laptops and iPads to some students, but could not help those without internet access who “are home and have to go to the local Starbucks or to a parking lot or McDonald’s to get Wi-Fi.”

Holloway said Rutgers has so far raised $7 million toward a $10 million Scarlet Promise Grants program, but that still isn’t enough to cover all the poverty-related challenges students face.

“We are quite well aware that we could double that amount and still not meet all the needs out there in our student population. It’s unsettling,” he said.

Gaba said the student population at Atlantic Cape Community College is in great need because the region relies heavily on hospitality and tourism for jobs and still has not recovered from the temporary closure of casinos in the spring. She said the school has been working with community organizations and holding food drives and giveaways.

“We did have a food pantry set up before this happened but we do have a very big need,” she said. “When we’ve had those school drives, people are literally around the corner in their cars lined up for food. It’s very, very sad.”

Arielle Dublin, vice president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, said the social isolation, unsettled political climate and financial worries are impacting students’ mental health.

“Not being able to be in person really does take a toll on students, just being isolated at home all day in your room taking courses,” she said, adding that students have expressed dismay at not being able to meet and express themselves over such issues as the Black Lives Matter movement, the election and the storming of the U.S. Capitol. “Students aren’t able to get jobs and because of that some of them are very fearful of paying their tuition bill.”

Even with vaccine rollout, issues remain

While officials hope the vaccination rollout will help colleges resume at least some in-person classes and activities in the fall, that’s not a guarantee. Even if they can return to normalcy, the schools are likely to face other problems. Some predict that enrollments may still be down at four-year colleges, as high school graduates have not been getting the usual college search help from their counselors over the last year and cash-strapped families will have an even tougher time affording college. And learning loss due to remote learning in high schools may mean more students will need costly tutoring and other support services.

“The adequate availability of vaccines, the infrastructure to administer the vaccines and the willingness of the community to be vaccinated will determine how successful we are and how quickly we can return at a full scale at Rutgers,” said Holloway, adding the university has launched an “aggressive educational program” touting the importance, safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

“The next issue will be the impact on students who graduate high school in June 2021 and 2022,” said Marbach. “We know that there is a learning loss being experienced by these students for being outside of the classroom. They have limited interaction with their guidance counselors and staff to assist them in the college search process … We do see some significant challenges in terms of aid for underserved populations and we’re trying to address that.”

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