People who are familiar with the world of higher education know that there has been looming stress about enrollment among colleges and universities across the nation, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bradley projected a $9 million operational deficit before the pandemic. Shortly after the university sent students home, that projection jumped to $11 million, at minimum. Just this past week, university president Gary Roberts announced that the administration will try to reduce the operational budget by a quarter, roughly $40 million, to preserve the long-term financial health of the institution.
Like most private institutions in the nation, Bradley relies on tuition. According to Bradley’s financial statements, its total operating revenue was $157 million in the 2018-19 academic year. Within that, about $102 million came directly from tuition fees.
That means any drop in enrollment will lead to a significant decrease in operational revenue and place a significant burden on the overall financial health of the institution.
Roberts’ email to faculty and staff stated that Bradley is anticipating a 20 percent drop in revenue for the next fiscal year.
The effects of the pandemic have already shown at some smaller institutions. On March 27, MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, announced that it will permanently close its doors at the end of this spring semester.
With most schools using May 1 as the traditional deadline for students to pay deposits, March and April have traditionally been the prime time for admissions offices to recruit the next class. With the cancelation of all campus visits and other in-person admissions events, admissions offices have been forced to develop new plans.
Bradley has already delayed that deposit deadline to June 1 and has taken actions to help with recruitment. Such efforts include virtual campus tours, online student panels and other outreach efforts. Hopefully, these methods will help offset the expected enrollment decline.
On top of the recruitment challenges, the struggling economy is also not helpful.
Students and families will have a harder time paying for college. Universities will have a harder time recruiting prospective students or will need to give out more discounts in the forms of scholarships or financial aid. Meanwhile, it will also become harder for universities to retain their current students, as many families are already suffering from unemployment and are unable to pay tuition.
As Roberts communicated to all faculty and staff on Monday, “current circumstances certainly pose enormous challenges that will require sacrifices and adjustments that nobody should deny or minimize.”