Students at San Antonio’s higher education institutions were on spring break when they learned they would not be allowed back on campus for class this semester to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

As the semester’s end nears, local colleges and universities are beginning to grapple with an uncertain financial future complicated by murky fall enrollment projections, questions about how many students will return to campus this fall, and a lack of financial aid as the virus takes a toll on the global economy.

“I’ve been in education for 40 years now, and I have not seen anything that … would come close to equating [to this,]” Our Lady of the Lake University President Diane Melby said.

Melby’s university began “stress testing” their systems and financial models at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, projecting how the university would fare with several hundred students fewer than the normal 3,000-plus enrollment. The models have helped university officials understand potential cost savings and areas where revenue could be impacted, Melby said.

University officials have been clear about one area where there will be no cost savings: personnel. Melby and other university officials committed to not laying off or furloughing any employees. They also applied for aid from the Payroll Protection Program, which is offering forgivable loans to entities that don’t lay off employees for a certain period of time.

Some cost savings could come from utilities. The university might be able to save money on buildings they are no longer operating because campus is shut down. On any given day, only 10 to 20 employees are actually on campus, Melby said, adding that anyone working from campus has to receive permission from a supervisor.

OLLU is eligible to receive $2.1 million from the coronavirus relief package and must disperse half of the funding to support students in need of aid. Undocumented students won’t be eligible for this emergency aid, the U.S. Education Department said Tuesday.

The school offered students a credit to carry over reimbursable room and board charges or a cash refund, and most students chose the latter. The financial impact was roughly $500,000 which OLLU has done an “OK job of absorbing.”

Melby said she hoped federal money can help shore up students’ uncertain financial situations brought about by the pandemic.

Fuzzy enrollment projections

The stimulus money might also help stabilize a potentially shaky enrollment for next fall by giving students experiencing new financial hardship some support. The American Council on Education estimates higher education institutions nationwide will see a 15 percent drop in enrollment, with 25 percent fewer international students enrolling.

OLLU enrolls a large number of low-income students. The pandemic could disproportionately impact these students, preventing some from returning to campus in the fall.

With that in mind, Melby is preparing for the university to fall short of normal enrollment figures next semester. But the university is aiming to boost retention, reassigning staff members who typically administer residence halls to focus on student outreach, contacting students and their families to discover needs that did not exist before.

St. Mary’s University is adopting a similar strategy in response to the same concern. The university had to adjust to a significant change in operations when the new coronavirus began spreading in San Antonio. The number of students living on campus dropped from 1,224 to 26. The school moved summer classes to online and set up summer orientation to be delivered remotely.

St. Mary’s received $3.2 million in coronavirus relief funding and is devoting more than $2 million of the total toward students. The alumni association is kicking in roughly $620,000 for student support.

“[The money] will go towards helping our current students re-enroll in the fall,” St. Mary’s University President Thomas Mengler said. “We have been communicating with them as often as we can.”

The university is also boosting outreach to prospective students, offering virtual tours of campus and sending St. Mary’s “swag boxes” to those already admitted, Mengler said.

Still, St. Mary’s anticipates some financial hardship from the new coronavirus, as the university prepares for a potential budget cut of up to 10 percent.

“Certainly not in our lives has higher education experienced this,” Mengler said, referring to the total impact of the virus. “Financial recessions don’t carry with it the lockdowns and social distancing and masks that we are now being asked to wear in public. Nothing like this has ever happened.”

Education as the answer

Texas A&M University-San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente-Matson expressed a similar sentiment, but pointed out that the crisis could make attending college more attractive for some students. With so many students graduating from high school into an unpredictable job market, higher education could provide an answer, she said.

“For a student who is looking [at the prospect] of not finding a job and just graduating from high school or finding an entry-level job, coming to school might be another good option for them that can make it work,” she said.

And while TAMU-SA is not immune from financial hardship – the institution used money from their reserves to cover unexpected expenses like residential, dining, and parking reimbursements, and technology improvements – the school has the benefit of being “young and emerging,” Teniente-Matson said.

Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Many higher education institutions in the Northeast United States are old, with departments and faculty that are expensive to maintain and a declining enrollment base. In San Antonio and Texas, several of the institutions are still young and growing with leaner budgets, Teniente-Matson said.

There’s also a large population of college-aged students who might qualify for federal financial aid in the current economic climate.

“Nobody’s going to be making money or rolling in dough by any means, but it does provide an option to continue to look ahead,” Teniente-Matson said of attending college.

TAMU-SA is eligible for $5.6 million in coronavirus relief funding and is also asking donors to support the philanthropic Jaguar Lift Fund to help support students.

Spread across San Antonio, Alamo College’s five campuses collectively received the second-highest amount from the coronavirus relief package, second only to the University of Texas at San Antonio. The five campuses will receive more than $22 million from the federal government, with half mandated to be disbursed to students in need of support.

This distribution of resources will be done through the advocacy centers located on each campus, Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores said.

Going into budget season, Flores expressed cautious optimism and noted that community colleges are well situated nationally to weather economic downturns.

“We may have [fewer] resources, but oftentimes we have more students because we provide both a high-quality and low-cost undergraduate experience,” Flores said. “We’re cautiously thinking [enrollment] may be flat, but we’re thinking we may experience some enrollment increase because of our relatively low cost of tuition.”

Tuition comprises about a quarter of Alamo College’s revenue. Roughly 45 percent of the community colleges’ funding comes from property tax revenue for properties within the district’s boundaries. Notices for property tax appraisals are set to be distributed soon, and Flores plans to pay attention to any uptick in defaults or protests this year.

He’ll also be watching the Legislature, the source of another 22 percent of Alamo Colleges’ funding. With crude oil prices plunging to historic lows, Flores will pay special attention to activity in Austin next legislative session, set to start in January 2021.

Overall, Flores expects a flat budget going into next fall. This leaves questions about programs that were expected to expand in coming years, including Alamo Promise, the tuition-free program for eligible high school seniors in Bexar County.

The community college system initially planned to roll out the program to seniors at 25 local high schools with a high concentration of economically disadvantaged students and low rates of college attendance and then expand the program to another 20 schools in its second phase. Flores told the Rivard Report he felt comfortable rolling out the first phase as planned, but would be evaluating the program’s progress going forward.

Alamo Promise is funded by a mix of revenue: money from Alamo Colleges, the City, County, and private philanthropy. Should any of the revenue streams experience financial hardship and not be able to sustain the program, that could change future plans.

Are you an educator or do you have a student in your home who now has to learn remotely?

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.