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Colleges Are Cutting Programs Because of Coronavirus — What You Need to Know

Suzanne Shaffer


In February, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, colleges and universities began dealing with unforeseen expenses. It started with study abroad programs losing money on revenue, prepaid tickets and lodging.

Since then, costs have continued to pile up: canceled events and sports; tuition, room and board refunds; COVID-19 testing, tracing, isolation and sanitation procedures; and the extra expense of implementing new and expanded online teaching systems. At the same time, revenue has dropped this fall with the decline in enrollment.

Colleges anticipate losses in the millions and must make necessary adjustments to salaries, programs and student services to stay afloat this school year — and into the future.

Parents of high school seniors should pay attention to these developments. As your student finalizes their college list and works on applications, ask questions about each school's financial stability and any changes in programs offered in the future. Stay on top of the news and do your own research about the colleges your student is considering.

If you have a current college student, look for communication from the school itself regarding changes and cuts to programs and staff. Colleges are communicating with parents and students via emails, video messages and even podcasts.

Personnel Adjustments

Colleges across the country are trying to make up losses by laying off and furloughing staff (at first it was predominantly people working in nonacademic and nonadministrative roles like housing and dining services, but now it's faculty as well), adjusting salaries and implementing hiring freezes.

In addition, many universities are trimming budgets by halting retirement contributions to employees, reducing employee benefit contributions and cutting into faculty travel and sabbatical budgets.

How will these adjustments affect the quality of education and student life on campus? Only time will tell. Working under such strict financial constraints is certainly going to influence both students and professors.

Academic Programs

As colleges look for ways to trim costs, some are making changes to academic programs that will affect a portion of current students and most definitely shape the way future students view the colleges.

The University of Akron, a public university in Ohio, will cut six of its 11 academic colleges and consolidate programs into the remaining five. Budget woes and academic restructuring preceded the pandemic, but UA President Gary Miller puts a positive spin on the situation, saying the moves will "reduce administrative costs, match long-standing enrollment trends and build on our strengths.”

According to CNBC, other colleges are also making tough choices. Elmira College in New York is eliminating a number of academic programs, including American studies, classical studies, economics, international studies, music, philosophy and religion, and Spanish and Hispanic studies. Hiram College, just outside of Cleveland, cut several majors, including religion, art history and music, in favor of an increased emphasis on technology and programs in sport management, international studies and crime, law and justice.

Many colleges are struggling, and some will have to cut programs (or even shut down altogether), but the financial situation may also lead in some cases to creative solutions like the merger between Willamette University and Pacific Northwest College of Art where students will benefit from a broader range of academic opportunities.

As colleges cut or re-evaluate programs, it’s imperative that prospective students do their due diligence. Don’t assume last year's list of majors is still accurate. Current students whose programs are cut have choices: transfer to a college offering their major or delve deep into other available majors of interest. Either option is not ideal, but your student may have to adapt.

Study Abroad

Study abroad has become an increasingly popular part of the college experience, with one in 10 students participating in a program at some point during their undergraduate years (this is a pre-pandemic statistic). Junior year is when most students choose to go abroad, and last spring semester's juniors were hit hard — most if not all were forced to return home from their programs as the pandemic spread rapidly around the globe.

This year, nearly all programs have been either suspended or delayed. A friend of mine has a son attending Bates College who was scheduled to study abroad in Prague this fall. Talking about the affects of the pandemic on her son and other college students, she lamented the cancellation. “He was looking forward to this experience, but instead is staying in an off-campus apartment and taking online classes. It’s certainly been a disappointment.”

For students who chose a college because of its study abroad opportunities, it’s a tough pill to swallow. Colleges are hopeful that at least some programs will resume in the spring, but it’s impossible to predict. Liz Campanella, director of Villanova’s Office of Education Abroad said, “I’ve been telling folks my crystal ball is broken.”

With COVID-19 cases surging in many parts of the world, it's probably a good idea to help your student look for alternatives to studying abroad, through their own school or another institution. The University of California system is offering virtual internships starting in the summer of 2021 where students can “boost their career profile, build an international professional network and gain professional experience, all while staying local.”

Washington State University is offering students a no-cost alternative to studying abroad with their Global Cougs digital badge program. The program gives students a virtual digital travel experience in place of an actual travel program. The University of Buffalo program that in the past has taken student groups to Tanzania to study women’s empowerment launched the program virtually relying on photos, videos and digital media collected during past trips.

The disruption of study abroad programs will mean students either take a “wait and see” attitude or move forward with their education and resolve that studying abroad is not in the cards. It’s encouraging, however, that many colleges are addressing the issue and providing students with valuable alternatives.

Career Services

Both students and employers can expect reduced career services this fall in our colleges and universities. Career fairs and career counseling have moved online. In-person visits to campus career centers may be limited or unavailable. For recent graduates, the pandemic has made networking and job hunting difficult.

However, moving most if not all career services online may prove helpful to many students. According to Inside Higher Ed, in the past a minority of students meaningfully engaged with their career services office while in college, and many of those who did found the services largely unhelpful.

With the loss of on-campus and/or in-person career services, colleges need to find other ways to help students locate internships and jobs. Programs like Emsi use data to help guide students toward careers, align programs with regional needs and help colleges, employers and policymakers understand regional workforce activity providing a Job Postings Dashboard for students to access online.

The New England Board of Higher Education noted,

Changes are long overdue, but the dramatic impact of COVID-19 provides higher education and the workforce with a stronger impetus than ever before to finally overhaul our broken career services system. Doing so can help graduates and displaced workers better navigate an uncertain workforce both now and in the future.

Athletic Programs

Currently, 19 Division I schools have cut at least one of their teams since the pandemic began. In total those 19 schools have permanently cut 57 teams among them and there will certainly be more to come. Baseball, softball, wrestling, lacrosse, tennis and golf are among those cut. Some schools have even cut the popular sport of soccer. However, not one school has cut their football or basketball programs or any of the amenities as a way to save money for the college.

It was predictable that the sports that produce income for the colleges would not be cut, but those students who play other sports and are on scholarships have been left hanging. Only time will tell if the programs that were cut will be reinstated once the pandemic passes.

In the meantime, prospective athletes may find these cuts will affect their college choice and sports recruitment. Many colleges are still recruiting athletes in anticipation of eventual reinstatement of sports programs. Many current student athletes were forced to transfer schools in order to be able to continue playing sports and maintain their scholarships. For students whose sports programs were cut and who stay at their institutions, loss of scholarship funds may mean looking for outside scholarships or making up the gap with student loans.

The depth of the current financial crisis in our colleges will force them to cut deeply across budgets. CARES Act funding from the government came in two parts — half must be given to the students for emergency relief and the other half is available for the college to use at its discretion. Colleges are already saying this funding falls far short of meeting their needs. Struggling colleges will continue to cut back on faculty, services and academic offerings and students will most likely be faced with higher tuition.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been highlighted on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College and TeenLife online and she has written for Smart College Visit, College Focus, Noodle Education and Road2College. Her articles have also been featured in print in TeenLife, UniversityParent and CollegiateParent publications.

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