For Small Colleges, Decision To Reopen Campus Is Especially Daunting

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The Cole Science Center and the Harold F. Johnson Library at the heart of Hampshire College's campus. The college is planning to reopen to students in the fall, following social distancing guidelines. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Cole Science Center and the Harold F. Johnson Library at the heart of Hampshire College's campus. The college is planning to reopen to students in the fall, following social distancing guidelines. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

As colleges weigh whether to reopen campus this fall, leaders are considering the health of students and staff as well as the financial implications of not reopening campus. That decision is especially hard for small colleges, such as Elms College in Chicopee.

"It's a tough time for all campuses, but particularly for smaller campuses," said Harry Dumay, the college's president.

Elms caters to many students who are the first in their family to go to college. About 1,100 undergraduate students attend. Forty percent are eligible to receive Pell grants, the federal grants to the lowest income students.

In order to provide for social distancing, the college will house one student per dorm room. That means only half the students who enroll will be on campus. And that has financial costs. Dumay anticipates a cut in revenue from room and board and a $5 million budget gap.

"For a large university, that doesn't mean anything," said Dumay. "But on a $30 million budget, that's a significant amount."

In order to prevent students from bringing COVID-19 back to its 1,100 student campus, Anna Maria College in Paxton is having students stay home after Thanksgiving. They won't return until next year.

President Mary Lou Retelle said that decision comes at a cost.

"If we don't bring them back at the end of the semester, there's two weeks that they will not be having to pay room and board," said Retelle.

Retelle is also wondering how the college will pay to test for COVID-19.

"It looks like twice a week we're going to have to test our students and faculty," Retelle said.

Retelle is awaiting recommendations on testing from a group of college presidents. Big universities can afford to do their own testing. It's more daunting for small colleges.

"Testing everyone — that assumes comprehensive testing of every single person every one to four days — that is still very, very laborious and difficult to do logistically," said Dr. Michael Mina, assistant professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University's T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Mina, who is advising colleges on testing, said that's especially true for rural schools far from testing facilities.

"Those are costs that we're just going to need to bear," said John Weinstein, provost of Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington. He pointed out that with only 450 students, the cost of testing won't be astronomical.

The pandemic is also making in-person learning more expensive because students will have to be spaced out.

"The financial impact on an institution to actually reopen is actually fairly significant," said Lynne Deninger, a Boston architect with Cannon Design, a firm advising colleges across the country on how they can adapt campuses for the return of students. She said permanent changes are so expensive few colleges are making them. But even making temporary changes cost a lot of money.

And then there is the question of how many students will return this fall. On the positive side, fewer students mean smaller classes. At Simon's Rock, Provost Weinstein is expecting even smaller classes than the college normally offers.

"We have historically very small class sizes," said Weinstein. "That is a great asset particularly in this moment."

Many small colleges have small endowments. They need student tuition to survive. Weinstein said more domestic students are expected on campus this fall, but international students may not be able to come back.

"Of course it puts things on the more challenging end," Weinstein said.  "But we have a really dedicated board and other dedicated supporters who are there to see us through the situation."

At Anna Maria College, President Retelle said returning student enrollment is solid.

"We have great numbers, more so than we have seen in our retention in past years," Retelle said.

Retelle said the college also has strong numbers of new students. For now, deposits indicate the college will have a full first-year class. Typically, 60% of the students are eligible for federal Pell grants.

"Now when the bills go out [in July], that's when I say what will happen then with families that have been affected by unemployment," Retelle said. "And we're very generous in our financial aid with our students, but it may not be enough."

And the college's resources may not allow more. Retelle projects a 15% decline in revenue for the coming academic year.

This segment aired on June 24, 2020.


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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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