HIT­TING THE BOOKS

Illi­nois col­leges los­ing mil­lions of dol­lars as stu­dents stay home dur­ing pan­demic

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - CLARE PROC­TOR RE­PORTS,

Illi­nois col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are fac­ing mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar deficits as they pre­pare to re­open this fall while the coron­avirus pan­demic con­tin­ues to take a huge toll.

A sig­nif­i­cant hit is com­ing from the dwin­dling num­ber of stu­dents liv­ing on cam­pus — a num­ber that has been slashed in half at some schools and elim­i­nated com­pletely at oth­ers. An­other hit is com­ing from the huge ex­penses of mak­ing dorms and class­rooms safe for those who do come to cam­pus.

Mean­while, stu­dents are de­mand­ing dis­counts in tu­ition and fees — which would cre­ate more prob­lems for schools’ bottom lines.

Na­tion­wide, only 9.3% of stu­dents plan to live on cam­pus this fall, ac­cord­ing to a July sur­vey by Real Es­tate Witch.

At the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago, about 3,400 stu­dents lived on cam­pus in fall 2019. This fall, that num­ber will be slashed in half, to about 1,700 stu­dents. As a re­sult, the univer­sity is los­ing about $15 mil­lion in room and board fees, said univer­sity spokes­woman Sherri McGin­nis Gon­za­lez.

The U. of I.’s Ur­bana-Cham­paign cam­pus es­ti­mated that costs to re­spond to the pan­demic had led to $70 mil­lion in fi­nan­cial losses in April. Though num­bers aren’t fi­nal­ized, the univer­sity ex­pects about 2,500 fewer stu­dents to live on cam­pus this fall, down from 8,800 last year. With av­er­age room and board fees at more than $12,000 for the year, that could sig­nal a loss of tens of mil­lions of dol­lars if the pan­demic’s im­pact con­tin­ues through the end of the school year.

Mean­while, the Real Es­tate Witch sur­vey found that 88% of the 1,000 stu­dents sur­veyed be­lieve on­line classes should be cheaper.

But of the 100 col­leges sur­veyed — in­clud­ing DePaul Univer­sity, the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign and the Univer­sity of Chicago — less than 3% plan to re­duce tu­ition this fall.

Nearly 4,000 stu­dents at Loy­ola Univer­sity have signed a pe­ti­tion that fall tu­ition should be re­duced. North­west­ern Univer­sity went as far as re­quir­ing stu­dents sign an agree­ment ac­knowl­edg­ing tu­ition won’t be dis­counted for on­line classes.

“It’s all about value,” said Tony Mines­tra, pres­i­dent-elect of the Illi­nois As­so­ci­a­tion of Col­lege Ad­mis­sion Counseling. “Is dis­tanced learn­ing in pa­ja­mas worth $65,000? For some fam­i­lies, it is, and for oth­ers, there are re­ally hard ques­tions to ask.”

Dean Darhus­sein, a ris­ing ju­nior at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign, found him­self ask­ing those ques­tions when he weighed whether to re­turn to cam­pus this fall.

Darhus­sein, 20, con­sid­ered de­fer­ring classes for a year or en­rolling in com­mu­nity col­lege to save money since his classes will be on­line. He de­cided to stay at the univer­sity to main­tain the schol­ar­ships he’s re­ceiv­ing but will save room and board costs by com­plet­ing fall se­mes­ter from home in Tin­ley Park.

“I felt like I was go­ing to be stuck in a tiny dorm room for four months,” said Darhus­sein, who’s study­ing physics. “I know my­self, and men­tally, I’d go a lit­tle in­sane. . . . If I’m go­ing to do it on­line, I’d rather do it at home.”

With stu­dents see­ing less value in on­line classes, com­bined with fi­nan­cial pres­sures like par­ents los­ing jobs, col­leges will likely see de­clines in en­roll­ment, said Francesca Orte­gren, a data sci­en­tist at Clever Real Es­tate, the sis­ter com­pany of Real Es­tate Witch.

Loy­ola is an­tic­i­pat­ing at least 200 fewer fresh­men en­rolled this fall, of­fi­cials said late last month. The univer­sity also an­nounced last week that all dorms will be closed for the fall.

The school in July pro­jected at least a $50 mil­lion de­cline in rev­enue, due in large part to de­clines in fresh­men en­rolling or liv­ing on cam­pus, as well as its sus­pen­sion of the stu­dent ac­tiv­ity fee. That es­ti­mate was re­leased be­fore the univer­sity an­nounced dorms will re­main closed this fall — hous­ing and meal plans usu­ally make up $65 mil­lion of the school’s rev­enue.

Univer­sity spokes­woman Anna Shy­man­ski Zach said it’s “too early” to quan­tify the to­tal fi­nan­cial im­pact of not hav­ing stu­dents liv­ing in dorms.

For schools, deal­ing with the fall­out won’t be easy, said Mines­tra, who is also a col­lege coun­selor at DePaul Col­lege Prep, a pri­vate high school. Bud­gets are of­ten set a year — or mul­ti­ple years — in ad­vance, he said.

“It’s a tough con­ver­sa­tion,” Mines­tra said. “Do you lean into your hu­man re­sources, your pro­fes­sors, to fight through this storm, or do you re­pur­pose what ed­u­ca­tion looks like on your cam­pus?”

While prom­i­nent, se­lec­tive pri­vate schools typ­i­cally have healthy en­dow­ments and can bet­ter “weather the storm” fi­nan­cially, smaller schools or state in­sti­tu­tions de­pend­ing heav­ily on tu­ition will need “to­tally dif­fer­ent” rev­enue streams this fall, he said.

“It’s not as sim­ple as sim­ply pro­rat­ing or cut­ting the cost [of tu­ition] be­cause there are still bills to be paid,” Mines­tra said. “There are some costs schools sim­ply can’t un­tan­gle them­selves from. They’ve got to run the cam­pus, got to pay pro­fes­sors.”

PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES

The cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago.

PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES

The Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago could lose $15 mil­lion in rev­enues this fall with fewer stu­dents on cam­pus.

TYLER LARIVIERE/SUN-TIMES

Dean Darhus­sein, who is ma­jor­ing in physics at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­banaCham­paign, weighed whether to re­turn to cam­pus this fall.

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