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Education facing uncertain future

Penn State reports losses of $77 million

HARRISBURG — Unpredictability was the theme of Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, which focused on higher education across Pennsylvania and involved testimony from a slew of stakeholders.

Facing unprecedented financial constraints, budget shortfalls, student enrollment questions, inequities in technology access and the looming threat of a campus coronavirus outbreak, college presidents and other higher education leaders addressed the future of the industry and its viability.

One of the most vocal concerns among the administrators was ensuring their schools had the capacity to test and trace for coronavirus and procure the personal protective equipment for staff and students.

“Education is mission critical,” said Patrick Gallagher, University of Pittsburgh chancellor. “It’s really not the case where a student can stop growing and put their life on hold. In fact, one of my greatest concerns about the crisis we find ourselves in is the degree to which it does interrupt lives and it does expose a lot of the inequities that we see.”

The hearing comes after Gov. Tom Wolf recently signed a $25.1 billion temporary General Fund budget that provides both basic and higher education with flat funding for the 12-month fiscal year, which starts July 1. All university and college representatives at the hearing expressed gratitude for that stability.

Yet the financial impact of the flat funding — not even adjusted for inflation — won’t be seen for months and years to come.

Eric Barron, Penn State president, said the university lost $77 million this past spring as a result of prorated meals and housing costs once the school went remote in March. Even with cost savings measures, Barron said, the school could see a “net problem” of anywhere between $30 million and $400 million.

Richard Englert, Temple University president, said his school is looking at a $50 million gap in the budget.

Losses could hit $1 billion

Tom Foley, Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania president, said the 92 schools are facing a combined a loss of $426 million, which could increase by $1 billion “if the fall enrollment numbers are as the surveys are projecting.”

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein said the system was already compromised before the pandemic. But now, the situation has been exacerbated. Greenstein said a five-year plan recently implemented to share services and save on costs has now been “accelerated” to be completed in two years.

“The system has had some difficulties maintaining its numbers, and some of our universities were on the cusp of potential failure,” said Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester.

Most institutions are gearing up toward holding some form of in-person instruction come August, with many noting the disproportionate negative impacts remote learning has on first-generation students, low-income students and minority students.

“Every school leader has worked to come up with a plan to ensure that there will be some level of schooling and education at the start of the new academic year,” said Pedro Rivera, state education secretary. “It very well could look different.”

Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks, said he wants students back on campus.

“I’m looking forward to working and getting these schools open,” he said. “I think it’s important we get them open in a safe way and keep our students on a career path and get them back into as normal a life as we can.”

But there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

With different schools serving different students with different needs and demographics, and with each school located in a part of the state impacted differently by the coronavirus, there likely will not be complete uniformity in how to handle instruction this semester.

Brenda Allen, Lincoln University president, said the “digital divide” among her students of color became apparent when her institution moved to remote learning this spring.

“It’s really impacted their ability to keep pace with where education is going,” Allen said. “We talk about this new normal, until we can get people equal access to those tools, I think we’re going to continue to see people fall behind.”

Obtaining certifications

Different fields requiring different amounts of hands-on activities, and with certifications coming from a variety of different state boards, the logistics only get more complex.

Elizabeth Bolden, Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges president and CEO, said community colleges have resumed in-person instruction where permitted and required for learning.

Enrollment disruptions and the costs of complying with health guidelines, including increased cleaning and reconfiguring spaces to allow for social distancing, have made the future uncertain. Bolden is anticipating a $55 million revenue loss through the end of the calendar year.

“Face-to-face instruction in this environment is demanding, it’s expensive and it is going to be difficult moving forward,” Bolden said.

Davie Gilmour, president of the Pennsylvania College of Technology in rural Williamsport, said some students are on campus now for anywhere from one to three weeks, with more coming in July. Some staff are back working and dining, and dorms are operating on a limited basis. Stickers on floors remind people to stand 6 feet apart, and masks are required in all common spaces.

Gilmour said no class at the college is larger than 30 students.

At larger universities, things are different.

Englert said Temple, which is planning on a hybrid model of both in-person and online classes, said students will live in single occupancy residence halls and large lectures are likely to be held remotely. The institution will end in-person instruction at Thanksgiving break.

Besides employing a comprehensive test and trace strategy, along with developing an isolation and quarantine protocol should an outbreak occur on campus, administrators also expressed concerns about liability issues regarding financial and health risks of in-person activities and the implementation of clear health standards.

Still, with so much uncertainty in the world of higher education, hope remains. “This becomes the time to invest,” Barron said. “The time to invest in economic development, the time to invest in all of these young people and make sure that we don’t create a gap there in terms of their success.”

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