Published June 10th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
In a normal year, May 1 is National College Decision Day. Students across the country announce where they’ll be spending the next few years, and parents lament the small fortune they’ll spend funding those dreams.
This isn’t a normal year. May 1 came and went, and colleges moved their decision dates further back. Now it’s June, and many students still don’t know where they’ll head next. Others, meanwhile, are stuck in plans they made before the pandemic hit.
Chloe Ray, an incoming freshman at University of Missouri-Columbia, said putting her education on hold isn’t an option. While Ray qualified for federal assistance to pay for her tuition, she had already taken out student loans to pay for her housing.
“I can’t afford to not go to Mizzou,” Ray said. “I couldn’t see myself taking a gap year and stopping to pay for it.”
If classes end up moving completely online, Ray said she doesn’t see herself staying in Columbia past the fall semester. The prospect of empty dorm rooms spells trouble for universities already reeling from spring semester refunds, and leaders will have to find new ways to recoup previously guaranteed money.
At Mizzou, in contrast to other schools in Missouri and Kansas, that may mean raising tuition in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting economic shock.
In a May meeting, UM System President Mun Choi said the system is considering tuition increases as a partial solution. More details are expected during the June 18-19 UM Board of Curators meeting, where any increase would need to be approved by the board.
“I’d imagine there’s already less people willing to go to college because of the pandemic,” Ray said. “Some of those students have been laid off from their jobs. I think (a tuition increase) would mean a decrease in students, and students not willing to pay those costs.”
The potential increase comes at a time when Missouri’s public college enrollment has plummeted over the past five years, and only a year after the UM System approved a 5% increase in tuition for all undergraduate students. In 2018, the system approved a 2% increase. System universities, located in Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia and Rolla, are already the most expensive public institutions in the state.
The UM System has outlined three budget scenarios for the upcoming school year: virus containment, virus recurrence and pandemic escalation.
Virus containment would see students staying on campus the entire year. Virus recurrence would see one in-person semester and one online semester. Pandemic escalation would force a completely online school year.
If a pandemic escalation occurred, the system anticipates some students switching to schools with more experience in online learning. To combat drops in enrollment, it would offer larger tuition discounts.
Right now, enrollment going into the fall appears steady, and Choi has expressed optimism that the fall semester will begin in person.
But FAFSA applications have dropped, indicating students may be hesitant to commit to college during the pandemic. In Missouri, completed applications are down 5.8% from the same time last year.
A national survey from The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the American Council on Education, meanwhile, found that almost one in five students are reconsidering or no longer planning to enroll in the fall.
Many colleges seem to be paying attention to student concerns. Some have started lowering tuition rates and offering deferred payment plans.
In Missouri, private medical school Kansas City University announced it would freeze tuition for the 2020-2021 school year at the current level, revoking a previously planned 3% increase. Avila University, a private Catholic school in Kansas City, is offering a 25% tuition discount for its adult professional undergraduate and graduate programs to workers affected by the pandemic.
Reducing student costs pressures the institution’s finances, though, and public universities don’t necessarily have the same tools to weather the storm as their private peers.
On June 1, Gov. Mike Parson announced a $41 million cut from the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, most of which was earmarked for four-year institutions. The move, part of a larger cost-saving strategy amid declining state revenues, means public universities won’t get any funding in June.
“Those cuts are substantial, there’s no question about that,” said Leroy Wade, deputy commissioner of the Department of Education. “It’s a pretty big hit for the institutions, especially at the end of the year. It makes it really hard to plan in those situations.”
The UM System lost $18.6 million in the latest round of cuts, university spokesperson Christian Basi said. Overall, the system has lost roughly $52 million in state funding this year, including a $33.65 million cut in April.
The cuts may not stop there. Wade said Missouri’s state budget director, Dan Haug, thinks the budget passed by lawmakers for the next fiscal year is unbalanced. In order to rectify the situation, higher education funding could be on the chopping block yet again.
“I don’t know how extensive (the cuts) will be, but we’re certainly expecting there to be some of those, at least at the beginning of FY21,” Wade said.
In Kansas, the University of Kansas is aiming to keep its tuition flat for the upcoming school year, chancellor Douglas Girod said in a statement. The proposal will have to be approved by the Kansas Board of Regents, who are meeting June 17 and 18.
In the statement, university leaders acknowledged the increased chance that students would prioritize cheaper education, and said that, “While KU’s tuition is competitive with many peer institutions, any increase in our tuition runs the risk of students choosing a more affordable option over KU.”
Johnson County Community College will keep the same per credit hour rates for the fall as it currently has for the summer. Kansas City Kansas Community College has not announced its fall tuition rates yet.
One kind of public institution may be better equipped to handle the uncertainty of the fall — community colleges.
Metropolitan Community College (MCC), a system which includes two-year schools in Kansas City, Independence and Lee’s Summit, already had an established online learning program. That infrastructure allowed MCC to make an easier transition when campuses were forced to close.
“It was very helpful,” said Blake Fry, executive director of communication and marketing at MCC. “The administrators for the MCC online campus were really at the forefront of the transition to remote instruction.”
Fry said MCC has heard from prospective students and parents reconsidering plans to attend a four-year college during the pandemic. He said MCC will not be raising its tuition for the fall semester, and taking classes through a community college like MCC lets students finish their general education credits at a lower price point.
“I don’t think the pandemic has changed that at all,” Fry said. “We consider ourselves an access point for students. Even before any tuition increases, our tuition was one-third of the average four-year university.”
No one knows when the pandemic will end, or if the nation will see a second surge later in the year. That uncertainty makes long-term planning akin to guessing a stranger’s name: there’s a chance you’ll get it right, but there’s a really strong chance you’ll get it wrong.
Higher education was already struggling before the pandemic. Missouri’s public universities are in the midst of a five-year drop in enrollment, according to data collected by the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development. Two-year universities have seen a collective 17.1% drop, while four-year universities have seen a 6.6% reduction.
Of the four UM System universities, only the University of Missouri-Kansas City has seen an upward trend over the past five years. If enrollment numbers continue to drop, it’s hard to imagine an easy financial recovery.
Students are also left wondering how to navigate a new economic reality. In an effort to make higher education funding more accessible during the pandemic, the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development eased requirements for some of its scholarship programs. It is continuing to monitor the situation, Wade said, and may make further adjustments to keep the scholarships attainable.
“There are so many unknowns,” Wade said. “It’s frustrating for us. I’d like to be able to provide really clear information to students that are looking at our financial aid programs. Unfortunately at this point we just don’t have the information to be able to do that.”
To him, ensuring continued college attendance is vital to getting back to normal post-pandemic.
“In the long run, that’s what’s going to get our economy back toward where it needs to be, it’s what’s going to help us rebuild this economy, as people seek that kind of training and skills.”
Emily Wolf is a Dow Jones summer intern with Flatland.