Small colleges may feel the pain of pandemic as finances, enrollment could take hits

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Capital News Service

LANSING — School’s out … for summer? 

Yes. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order to close all Michigan’s K-12 schools for the academic year.

With school out, everyone is stuck inside. That leaves some graduating seniors still deciding if and where they’ll attend college in the fall.

An economy being hammered by the coronavirus pandemic has caused more than 6 million Americans to file for unemployment benefits in recent weeks, the U.S. Labor Department announced. 

That could have a ripple effect on how many students apply for government financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“We’ve never seen something like this before,” said Michigan State University professor of education and economics Scott Imberman. “The way I would see it, is that (smaller colleges) are the most at risk. 

“There could be a lot of students planning to enroll that don’t anymore,” Imberman said.

Colleges are postponing or canceling graduation, and on-campus orientation could be next. 

The risks of COVID-19 sent college students packing early in March, and some won’t be back for summer classes. Michigan State University announced all classes would go online for the summer semester.

Marissa Sura, the associate vice president for marketing and communications at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, said, “This time apart presents new challenges for our community of prospective students, accepted students and their families, who cannot visit our campus in the same ways that they used to be able to visit.”

Aquinas has instituted digital ways for prospective students to tour its campus and get the same orientation experience, Sura said.

“The goal of our staff is to focus on the needs of prospective students,” Sura said.

The staff at Aquinas, Sura said, is still actively recruiting students and trying to provide the best ways possible for prospective students to see if they will attend the school.

“We are also working to build a virtual visit experience similar to our on-campus open houses and will be launching a new virtual visit experience that includes video and student testimonials, as well as allows students to self-curate the experience based on their interests,” Sura said.

“The goal of our faculty and staff is to focus on the needs of our prospective students, accepted students and their families during this extraordinary time, which has required a great deal of creativity and collaboration.,” she said.

Other small colleges in the state are still figuring out how to help incoming students be prepared for next fall.

Hope College in Holland has decided it will stay the course with its new-student orientation on Aug. 28-31 but canceled its Admitted Student Day event on April 18.

Hope’s total enrollment is 3,046, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Greg Olgers, the director of news media services at Hope, said, “Given the dynamic and evolving nature of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s too early to anticipate what the circumstances will be in the fall.

“We are continuously monitoring developments regarding the pandemic and making decisions accordingly,” Olgers said. “But it’s also too soon to know how our fall orientation might be affected. In the meantime, we are currently proceeding as we normally would with planning new student orientation.”

Olgers said the college’s admissions representatives are continuing to contact families and prospective students via video conferencing and phone calls to stay in touch.

Some schools may feel a financial toll. 

Unlike state universities, private institutions like Calvin University in Grand Rapids have higher average costs of attendance and lower enrollment numbers. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, Calvin’s annual average cost of attendance is $25,000 for it’s 3,550 undergraduates. By comparison, the department lists Central Michigan University’s average cost at $16,000. CMU is in Mount Pleasant.

MSU’s Imberman says that without the endowment funds and other financial backing that many larger universities have, small colleges could be in trouble. “There is a pretty high likelihood that some institutions will close.

“I’m also guessing that some of them may have to operate at 50% enrollment,” Imberman said.

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