The coronavirus pandemic has cost Central New York colleges and universities tens of millions of dollars, forcing schools to dip into their reserves and cut expenses while trying to avoid employee layoffs or furloughs.
The schools agreed to refund millions of dollars in room, board and fees to students told to stay away from campus during the pandemic, stressing colleges whose endowments have plunged with the stock market.
Syracuse University, Le Moyne College, Onondaga Community College and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse each confirmed they are refunding from one-third to one-half of room and board fees to students for the spring semester.
The pro-rated refunds will cost Le Moyne College about $5 million that will come out of the college’s reserve fund, said Le Moyne President Linda LeMura.
At the same time, the value of Le Moyne’s endowment dropped from a high of $215 million earlier this year to a low of $160 million when the stock market wiped out almost four years’ worth of gains last month.
The private Jesuit college will lose about 6 percent of its annual revenue with the refunds, a setback the college says it can handle for now.
“The college has good cash flow,” LeMura said in an interview. “We are very conservative with how we budget, and we can absorb this particular blow. But the question is how long will this go on?”
As the college moved classes online for the remainder of the semester, it has kept its 700 employees (including 177 full-time faculty) on the payroll without layoffs or furloughs.
“We want to keep people whole as long as we can,” LeMura said.
At the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, board chairman Matthew Marko warned in a letter to the campus community that the college may be forced to borrow money from the State University of New York “within the next month” to enable continued operations.
“With the very real, and potentially long downturn in our economy, the college’s finances will become even more challenging,” Marko wrote, referring to the economic stress caused by the virus pandemic.
ESF Interim President David Amberg told Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard that the college’s financial picture is not as bleak as it may appear.
He said the school has slowly depleted its reserves over the past 10 years after funding from the SUNY system was reduced by about $5.3 million per year.
If needed, Amberg said, the school will be able to borrow some of the $900 million that SUNY keeps in reserve for use by its member campuses.
In the interim, the college is considering initiatives to increase revenue and reduce costs as it prepares to refund about $1 million in dormitory fees to students, Amberg said. The refunds will represent about one-third of the semester’s housing fees.
He said the college will consider higher fees, an increase in tuition for out-of-state students, increasing student enrollment, and allowing other schools to pay for access to some of the college’s 25,000 acres of forest properties in the Adirondacks that are used for research purposes.
“The good news for us is that we have a product this generation really wants,” Amberg said, noting that the college’s enrollment increased each of the last two years.
He said the college wants to avoid layoffs or furloughs of faculty and staff or any cutbacks that could hurt its core mission.
“We want to make sure we maintain our academic standards because, if we don’t, we’ll end up in a death spiral,” Amberg said. “We’re part of a huge system with huge resources. We’re going to weather this storm.”
To help colleges and universities with their financial losses, Congress agreed to provide $9.5 billion for higher education aid in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill approved in late March.
The U.S. Department of Education said Thursday it would immediately disperse $6.2 billion of that aid from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
The total includes more than $50 million for colleges and universities in Central New York, according to an analysis by Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard.
Syracuse University will receive the most aid in the Syracuse metropolitan area, almost $10 million, followed by SUNY Oswego, which will receive more than $7.2 million in federal grants.
The amount of aid for each school is based on a formula that includes student enrollment and the number of students receiving financial aid through federal Pell grants. Roughly half of the federal money must be granted to students as emergency financial aid.
Syracuse University officials declined to disclose specific details about the impact of the pandemic on its finances. SU told its students that it will provide pro-rated refunds for dormitory rooms, meal plans and certain and parking fees dating to March 23, the date the university moved to online classes.
As a private school with an endowment valued at $1.35 billion as of Sept. 30, SU is better equipped to handle financial stress than many smaller public schools and community colleges.
SU and Le Moyne College restrict annual withdrawals from their endowments to no more than 4.5 percent of the total to help pay for operating costs. That means less money is available for operating costs if an endowment declines in value.
At Onondaga Community College, the public school operates with the help of a much smaller $14 million endowment overseen by a foundation that supports scholarships and academic programs.
OCC President Casey Crabill said the college faces a challenge to make up for about $1.7 million in revenue it lost this semester from empty dorm rooms operated by its non-profit housing corporation. Students were advised not to return to campus after spring break as classes moved online. The college said it will refund about half of the semester’s housing costs to students.
The school has also lost about $800,000 from events that had to be canceled at its on-campus SRC Arena.
The federal relief bill passed by Congress will provide OCC with an initial round of aid totaling $5.2 million, of which $2.6 million must be given to students as emergency financial aid.
Crabill said her top priority is to distribute aid to students.
“About 80 percent of our students work while they’re going to school, and a lot of them work close to full-time,” Crabill said. “So we have a lot of students whose economic conditions have plummeted since social distancing went into effect.”
Some of OCC’s 10,500 students enrolled for the spring semester had trouble initially switching to online classes because they didn’t own a computer or have personal access to the internet, Crabill said.
To help ease the problem, the college allowed students to borrow 525 new Chromebooks through its bookstore at no cost.
“Technology access and access to a signal were huge issues,” Crabill said.
To help students access the internet for free, the college has allowed students to use a WiFi signal in its parking lots.
“Our students have put every nickel together to get here in the first place,” Crabill said. “And when things fall apart like this, it’s remarkable how quickly their safety net falls apart.”
Federal coronavirus relief aid for Central New York colleges
Here’s how much federal aid Central New York colleges and universities will receive in the first round of grants from a coronavirus relief fund authorized by Congress.
Cornell University: $12,800,980
Syracuse University: $9,920,122
SUNY Oswego: $7,244,716
SUNY Cortland: $6,245,138
Onondaga Community College: $5,222,555
Ithaca College: $4,583,253
Le Moyne College: $2,709,704
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry: $1,681,739
Colgate University: $1,636,002
Cayuga Community College: $1,497,604
Hamilton College: $1,189,507
Cazenovia College: $1,008,776
Wells College: $623,035
SUNY Upstate Medical University: $519,826
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