COVID-19 will hit colleges when students arrive for fall semester. So why open at all? Money is a factor.

by Wills Joe
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Colleges that are reopening campuses this fall know they’re bringing a higher risk of coronavirus to their community.

The questions aren’t really about if or when, but about how bad outbreaks could be — and whether having an in-person experience for students is worth the cost. With so much at stake, some students, parents and faculty are asking: Why take the risk at all?

In many cases, it comes back to money.

For months, colleges and experts have warned another semester of remote courses could have disastrous effects on student enrollment and college budgets.

Colleges already lost billions of dollars when they pivoted to digital instruction in the spring, in the form of refunded room-and-board payments and expensive technology for online courses. Another semester — or year — of online courses could be even worse, especially for universities without large endowments. For any institution, online instruction also means no money from dorm rooms, dining halls or campus bookstores. Athletic proceeds have also dried up as the NCAA has canceled championship competitions for the fall and conferences have canceled fall seasons. And that doesn’t even account for students ditching class altogether.

A survey by SimpsonScarborough, a higher education research firm, in July found roughly 40% of incoming first-year college students said they were likely or highly likely to change where they attended school because of the COVID-19 outbreak. And returning college students, who complained of paying full tuition for lackluster classes in the spring, have weighed deferring future enrollment until campuses reopen. In response, some colleges have offered discounts on tuition or waived students’ fees tied to in-person activities. Others have faced students’ ire for declining to do so.

The American Council on Education, a higher education trade group, put colleges’ losses in the spring at $46.6 billion in increased student financial aid and lost revenue. The same group, joined by other college associations, told Congress it would cost at least $73.8 billion in new costs to reopen campuses. “The sad fact is that many colleges are racing toward a financial cliff,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president with ACE.

Finances are likely playing some role in a university’s decision to reopen, said Kevin McClure, a professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Even a dorm that is half-full might be better for a college’s bottom line than one that is completely empty. In some cases, he said, a college may be influenced to reopen by its board — members of which are often political appointees. (States led by conservative leaders have pushed to reopen their businesses and schools more quickly than their liberal peers.)

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