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Universities grapple with COVID

Pa’s state-related schools struggle with pandemic and the future

HARRISBURG — The challenges facing Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities, both related to COVID-19 and as well as beyond the pandemic, were a major topic of discussion Tuesday during a Senate budget hearing.

The four leaders of Pennsylvania State University, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University discussed the pandemic’s impact on remote learning, the digital divide, state and federal aid, budgeting and student enrollment in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Gov. Tom Wolf proposes flat funding in the state appropriation for the higher education institutions in his Fiscal Year 2021-22 state budget.

Higher education institutions in Pennsylvania are expected to split an estimated $1.3 billion in federal aid under the recently enacted American Rescue Plan, according to the House Democratic Appropriations Committee. Of that amount, 50% is for emergency financial aid to students.

Senate Appropriations Committee Majority Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, reminded the educators that the federal dollars are a one-time infusion to support a very challenging time.

The decision to appropriate a full year appropriation for the state-related universities in the Phase I FY2020-21 budget was welcomed by two educators.

“That gave us an island of stability … so we could plan for the future,” said Temple President Richard Englert.

“We’re very grateful to have that pressure taken off of us,” said Lincoln President Brenda Allen.

The abrupt switch from in-person classes to remote learning as the virus took hold in March 2020 has brought some new perspectives, the educators said. They agreed that remote learning will play a more important role even after the universities fully reopen.

“Students want the university experience but they also want the flexibility of online classes,” said Penn State President Eric Barron.

Both Englert and Allen noted some students adapt readily to remote learning while others struggle with it.

“There are differences in student learning patterns,” Englert said.

Pitt has extended its IT services to students’ homes and the surrounding community during the pandemic, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said. The university is providing tech support and donating equipment to public schools, he said.

“These are our future students,” Gallagher said.

Financially, the universities reported revenue losses during the past year due to fewer students on campus and, as a result, less revenue from housing, parking and rentals as Temple reported.

“The pandemic’s toll on the University of Pittsburgh is estimated to exceed

$140 million by June 2021,” Gallagher said.

“The university has realized an approximately

$400 million financial impact across the university, including in auxiliary and business services and Intercollegiate Athletics,” Barron said.

Penn State will use ARP aid to offset these losses.

“We are backstopping and working hard to keep people employed,” Barron said.

The four universities are grappling with pandemic enrollment issues in the face of long-term demographic trends showing a decline in the number of prospective students. Some projections indicate fewer students will be living on campus even after the pandemic is over.

Penn State is seeing an increase in enrollments, but many students are still sitting on the fence, Barron said.

Allen said it could take another year to 18 months before enrollment recovers. This is dependent upon family finances and the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, she said.

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