The COVID-19 pandemic has set loose winds of change at universities and colleges across the country and it could reshape the face of higher education for decades.
Like it or not.
Already here in Wisconsin colleges and universities — like all businesses — have been hit with substantial financial losses as they sent students packing for home in mid-semester.
Initial estimates were that those corona-caused damages cost UW campuses a minimum of $170 million for the semester.
Campus businesses shuttered, dorms emptied, athletic seasons were abruptly halted. And the cutting knives came out. In just the area of athletics, for instance, the UW Athletic Department ordered a 15 percent reduction in pay for its highest earning coaches and employees for six months and began seeking approval for a work-share program for another 350 other employees to cut hours — all with the goal of trimming $2.8 million from the departments budget.
In rapid fashion, many schools cobbled together remote-learning plans to keep education on track for the semester and while that was a valiant short-term effort the quality of that instruction may have to become more robust if that is the direction colleges take in the post-coronavirus era.
California State University Schools have already decided to go the remote-teaching route next fall and all 23 of its campuses with about 480,000 students will not be doing in-person classes — with the exception of some labs and clinical sessions for students that cannot be done online.
CSU Chancellor Timothy White said, “Our university, when open without restrictions and fully in-person, as the traditional norm of the past, is a place where over 500,000 people come together in close and vibrant proximity to each other on a daily basis. That approach just isn’t in the cards right now.”
At other universities across the country, several have committed to reopening in the fall — and we have no doubt that there are a lot of chancellors, deans and presidents with their fingers crossed.
We’re hopeful for in-person reopening of campuses as well. While remote learning may be able to handle a lot of the instructional load, it doesn’t do a lot for the college experience, the face-to-face sharing of knowledge or the social interactions that often last students through their lifetimes.
The grim reality, however, is that state campuses — even if they reopen for classes in the fall or spring — face some prolonged belt-tightening.
University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross sharpened the ax this month and directed that all state campuses — except Madison and Milwaukee — should identify their most promising programs by mid-January with the idea that programs duplicated across several campuses, high-cost programs or ones low in student demand would be phased out in the 2021-22 school year.
Such cuts would likely lead to the end of some academic programs and campus layoffs.
Cross said the financial condition of the UW System had already endured a longstanding tuition freeze, depleted reserves, a projected decline in student enrollment and years of budget cuts — and that made it impossible to handle the negative financial impacts of the coronavirus without new cuts.
“This will make them stronger, not weaker,” Cross said. “In fact, the very futures of these universities depend on it.”
That is a grim outlook, but one that probably reflects the realities of our state campuses in the post-corona world. In years past, state government might have been able to blunt such an impact, but they have their hands full with their own problems: a recent assessment by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau said that state tax collections were down $870 million in April and Gov. Tony Evers has projected a $2 billion loss over the current budget.
President Cross is right to begin planning cutbacks and reductions now while there is still time.
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