Connecticut State Colleges and Universities Teeter with Limited Assistance, Uncertain Enrollment, Fear of a Second Outbreak

As the start of the 2020-2021 academic year approaches, the Connecticut State College and University system has a $10 million deficit caused by spring semester room and board refunds that were not fully reimbursed by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“Moving forward our best bet is to get assistance from the Coronavirus Relief Fund,” said Ben Barnes, chief financial officer for the state college and university system.

Although the Federal Emergency Relief Act has verbally confirmed that the college and university system will receive some funds, so far the system has not received any funding — apart from the initial CARES Act grant — that could be used to cover the cost of refunding room and board expenses.

With campuses set to reopen with residential student populations and in-person and online classes in the fall, the state system’s president expressed confidence that the 17 colleges and universities would weather the financial fallout of the initial wave of COVID. He said that he was less confident if either the fall or spring semesters are cut short.

“Your guess is as good as mine for the long term,” President Mark Ojakian said to the state Appropriations Committee on Monday afternoon. “If we are forced to shut down and either semester is not completed, we will have a dire financial problem going forward.”

To avoid prematurely closing, the college and university system has been working to implement on-campus COVID testing in a partnership with Griffin Health, upgrading air filters and HVAC systems in campus buildings, redesigning curriculum and classrooms for both online and in-person students and recruiting additional students to lessen the financial impact of declining enrollments.

At Capital Community College, several advertising campaigns targeting specific student populations, including the Hispanic population in Hartford, have been launched to encourage more enrollment.

So far, the school has seen only 16 percent of students enroll in classes out of 2,000 students who applied and were accepted for the fall, according to Duncan Harris the chief executive officer at Capital.

“We are calling to figure out why they haven’t enrolled, polling them and encouraging them,” Harris said. “I think it’s the anxiety of uncertainty that is the main thing.”

According to Harris, 1,000 of Capital’s 3,215 students are Hartford residents who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to slow the spread of the virus. Rent payments, car payments, generational living situations and part-time jobs have made it more difficult for these students to commit to returning to school.

“I do think that students being in school provides some sense of stability and forward motion,” Harris said. “So, I’m certainly pitching that in the communication campaign.”

At Southern, Eastern, Western and Central Connecticut State University enrollment appears higher than the 10 percent decline predicted by the Board of Regents.

According to Ojakian, there is no identifiable pattern shared among the students who are not choosing to enroll, whether they are in-state, out-of-state or are international students.

“We’ve seen some drop off in students enrolling in the universities, but so far we are seeing those enrollment numbers coming in better than we anticipated,” Ojakian said. “In adoption our budget this past July, our budget assumed a 10 percent reduction in enrollment.”

Enrollment decisions are due July 31, allowing for a more accurate tally of the enrollment decline next week.

At Southern, the most urban of the four state university campuses, the 2,200 spaces reserved in dorms on campus have yet to be filled, reducing an important income stream from room and board fees.

“Being in an urban environment actually does not help Southern,” said Joe Bertolino, the president of the university. “Most students have access to public transportation and are more inclined to commute during this period when they may have chosen to stay on campus otherwise.”

Lessons learned from COVID

Although financial situation of the College and State University system remains uncertain, institutions throughout the system report lasting changes for the better, with or without the pandemic.

At Capital Community College, for example, attendance at advisor meetings has increased as they are moved online.

“Many students would prefer to meet with their advisors online rather than take two buses to get here,” Harris said. “We will actually continue some of that post COVID now.”

At Southern, the administration has invested in calling incoming students, as well as their families and former high schools, to survey their needs and situation while enrolling in their first semester.

“In the long term this will trigger us to collect more data, COVID or not” Bertolino said.

Some of those services include remote therapy and health services as well as virtual activities for students.