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Public Colleges, Regulators Brace For 'Unprecedented Challenge'

Already, the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to limit its spread has taken a financial toll on colleges.

Now, state education officials plan to analyze the state's 24 community colleges and public universities to determine how they would handle the financial impact.

At a remote meeting of the state's Board of Higher Education Tuesday, board chair Chris Gabrieli described what he called "an unprecedented planning challenge" confronting "all of higher education, public and private." (Full disclosure: Gabrieli has donated to WBUR's education coverage.)

First off, fewer students may come to campus or log on to online-learning portals going forward.

Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the state's department of higher education, said thus far, public college students have submitted 16 percent fewer applications for financial aid than was expected. As such, Santiago extended the deadline for those applications to July 1.

But colleges face other financial risks, Gabrieli added: from the need to implement costly public health measures once students do return to campus to uncertain promises of aid from strained state and federal budgets.

As such, Gabrieli announced an effort to deepen state officials' annual look into the budgets of 24 campuses, with "an intensive financial planning and analysis project” to be undertaken by the consulting firm EY-Parthenon.

The resulting report, due in June, will be what Gabrieli called "a systemwide view" of financial vulnerabilities on those campuses. Gabrieli said the effort is mainly to gather and present information. But he suggested that some campuses may be asked "to take actions to address the risks identified, perhaps even beyond their current plans."

Patricia Gentile, president of North Shore Community College since 2014, said she and other community-college presidents welcome the scrutiny.

"You won't find any kind of fat, any kind of overspending, in the community college sector," Gentile said. "What you will find are inabilities in our sector to support all the needs of our students."

About a third of community-college students in Massachusetts cope with food insecurity, and an estimated 10% were homeless in 2018, long before the outbreak. More had insecure housing.”

Gentile said that means community colleges —which educated about 110,000 people in the past fiscal year — are trying to do more with less. "We still haven’t yet recovered from financial cuts that happened [after] the Great Recession," she said. "And here we go again."

In public comments before Tuesday's meeting, Max Page, the vice president of the Massachusetts' Teachers Association, warned against "the political virus of austerity" —already showing up in the form of furloughs or layoffs to part-time staff at four state community colleges.

In an interview with WBUR, Page recommended instead an all-hands-on-deck push for emergency federal relief for states, municipalities and colleges.

"This is not a demand for charity," Page said. "We’re saying that the very best investment you can make in a crisis is in public education."

Gentile, set to retire in July, agreed. She noted how many "essential workers" — nurses, phlebotomists, police and firefighters — tend to graduate or do their first coursework at institutions like hers. Asked what the "pragmatic college president" would say to state regulators, she kept it simple: "Don't cut us."

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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