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Pandemic Worsens Existing Challenges At St. Louis-Area Public Colleges And Universities

File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating worrying trends across higher education that could reshape the scope of public colleges and universities in Missouri and Illinois.

Public colleges and universities were already making do with fewer students and less state aid before the pandemic. Both of those dropped faster than expected in 2020. Administrators at several of those schools are planning to reorganize as leaner institutions, accepting that the demographic and political realities of the future are not in their favor.

“I would say in a lot of ways that we probably have trimmed about as much fat that we can,” said Jeffrey Pittman, chancellor of St. Louis Community College. “But I think going forward, you're obviously getting into the ability to offer all the services and programs that you do.”

A long-term drop in the number of students on college campuses accelerated this year. Undergraduate enrollment across higher ed was down 3.6% at colleges nationwide, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, with deeper drops at community colleges and among first-year students.

Public funding for higher education never recovered from pre-recession levels. But Missouri’s contribution to postsecondary education had been dropping long before 2008. State funding for public four-year colleges has declined 46% per student since 2000, when adjusted for inflation. Community colleges have seen a 44% decrease.

The pandemic could cause another sharp drop, like the one experienced between 2008 and 2012. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson cut $181 million in higher ed funding and zeroed-out payments to public colleges in June. Campuses were able to recoup some of the loss through the CARES Act, although most of the money went to refunding students’ housing costs.

The University of Missouri System projected a $180 million loss in revenue in April and ordered its four campuses to find savings. The University of Missouri-St. Louis, which needed to trim $15.5 million in spending, instituted a pay reduction for most campus staff and laid off nearly all employees at its Touhill Performing Arts Center last month.

“We tried really hard to make sure that there wasn't this one area that was decimated because of these reductions. We know they were hard for everyone,” said Tanika Busch, UMSL’s chief financial officer.

Academic departments at UMSL are trimming course offerings, support staff and adjunct teaching positions, several faculty members said.

The college will need to find a way to reduce long-term spending by $7 million in next year’s budget, Busch said.

UMSL has been struggling to maintain or increase enrollment for many years. UMSL's enrollment dropped 6.3% from 2016 to 2019. It fell another 2.7% this fall. The university is currently developing an enrollment strategy that includes attracting more community college transfers and nontraditional students, such as part-time adult students.

The UM System is seeding the plan with $5 million.

Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville is one of the few public institutions in the region that’s been able to increase its student body over the last decade. Enrollment didn’t grow in August, but staying flat is an accomplishment considering the trends across higher education this year.

Tuition, room and board now make up the majority of the public institution's revenue, a flip from a generation ago. At SIUE, student tuition and room and board account for two-thirds of the operating budget. And even though enrollment was flat, fewer students are living on campus. Health protocols call for all dorm rooms to be single occupancy, and the university is offering more online courses so students don’t need to live on campus That’s deflated an important revenue source.

Illinois voters rejected an overhaul of income taxation in November, which would have pumped more state funding into higher ed.

“We're kind of taking a wait-and-see approach as it relates to where the budget’s going to come down,” said SIUE Chancellor Randy Pembrook.

The biggest drops in enrollment this year came at community colleges, a sector that usually does well during a recession as people look to retrain for a changing workforce. Instead, community colleges enrolled 10% fewer students. The number signing up for courses at St. Louis Community College was down 10% to 12%, while state aid was cut by about 16%, the college said.

STLCC’s student body has slid by one-fifth, or more than 4,000 students, over the last five years. In response to having fewer students, STLCC reduced teaching staff in 2017 and sold its downtown administration building last year. This year, it froze 70 vacant positions, and top administrators took a furlough. Pittman, who runs the four-campus network, said the college is considering another buyout program.

“We're also looking at how we're structured and seeing, are there ways we can get by with fewer employees going into the future?” he said. “Because we just, we don't know if this will be the status quo.”

STLCC may overhaul its course catalog and offer fewer programs while trying to make scheduling easier for students, Pittman said. The college is also exploring further reducing its physical footprint, which currently includes four main campuses and another four workforce centers throughout St. Louis and St. Louis County.

“You'll probably see at our campuses, not as much square footage in the future, but you're going to see much more modern space,” Pittman said.

Harris-Stowe State University, a historically Black institution, relies heavily on public funding, through direct state payments and the federal Pell Grant for low-income students that nearly 80% of its student population receives.

Harris-Stowe had the third-lowest revenue per student of Missouri’s 13 public four-year institutions prior to the pandemic. Enrollment this fall was down 15%, or about 300 students.

Federal relief funding in the spring allowed HSSU to stave off staff and faculty cuts. “So that actually was a huge help for us,” said Terence Finley, the college’s chief financial officer.

Finley said some capital projects were put on hold, but the college hopes to expand academic programs and increase full-time faculty to make the college more attractive to potential students in the near future.

The second pandemic relief package passed last week by Congress includes $23 billion in aid for higher ed, with additional funds set aside for historically Black colleges.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Editor’s note: St. Louis Public Radio is a community service of UMSL, but the station and its newsroom are editorially independent.

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Ryan Delaney works on the Innovation Trail project - covering technology, economic development, startups and other issues relating to New York's innovation economy.