More colleges consider across-the-board cuts, survey finds

Dive Brief: 

  • More college leaders were considering across-the-board budgets cuts and staff layoffs this summer than at the start of the coronavirus crisis, according to a new survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). 

  • The association polled more than 100 college presidents in March and between June and July about their institutions’ coronavirus responses. Although fewer leaders anticipate cutting academic programs and faculty positions in the latest survey, more are considering implementing furloughs and cutting benefits. 

  • The findings shed light on how colleges are responding to potential enrollment and revenue losses as a result of the pandemic. 

Dive Insight:

At least 224 colleges have laid off or furloughed employees or didn’t renew worker contracts, according to a review by The Chronicle of Higher Education. More than 50,000 employees have been impacted. 

In May, Wellesley College, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts, furloughed around 330 administrative and union staff. “Though there has been some progress on the public health front, the economic shock waves of the pandemic continue to worsen,” campus officials wrote in the announcement. 

More recently, the University of Akron’s board of trustees voted to cut 178 positions, including 96 union faculty jobs. The public Ohio institution also approved contracts calling for wage cuts, according to a local media report. Likewise, the University of Texas at San Antonio laid off 69 instructors in July to help absorb a revenue loss of nearly $36 million. 

Enrollment losses could also be steep at some colleges. One-third of respondents to AAC&U’s survey said they expected enrollment to decline by at least 5% in the 2020-21 academic year. And about one-fifth each anticipated smaller drops or no change. 

Although the survey paints a grim picture, some of its findings suggest that college leaders are becoming more optimistic about their institutions’ ability to weather the coronavirus crisis. Just 10% of those surveyed in July said they were expecting revenue losses greater than 15%, down from 30% who said the same in March. 

Still, colleges face a tough year ahead, and higher education groups are urging Congress to provide them with more relief funding. Earlier this year, more than 5,000 institutions were allocated about $14 billion, about half of which they had to distribute to students as emergency aid. 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has proposed a $430 billion education and child care package that would include $132 billion to help the higher education sector get through the pandemic. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have pitched $105 billion for education, about $30 billion of which would go to colleges and universities. 

But Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said in a statement that the Republican proposal was “inadequate” to help colleges withstand the crisis. The group estimates higher education institutions would need at least $120 billion to make up for lost revenues due to the pandemic and the increased costs of reopening campuses this fall.

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