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COVID-19: the financial implications for UCM

The University of Central Missouri wisely decided to close the school in March, but it may also bring a financial toll in the next few months and coming years. 

“We often hear this time described as ‘unprecedented,’” UCM President Roger Best said. “It is true that none of us have ever experienced a moment such as this; as we all face the challenge of significant disruptions in our normal way of life and heightened concerns about the well-being of our family members and friends.”

Unprecedented, indeed. 

A whirlwind of recent budget cuts forced President Best and his administration to try to make a plan for the days ahead. The Missouri governor recently cut higher education to help make up for the state’s shortfall due to the reduced sales taxes and income taxes. Additionally the cancellation of commencement this spring and the possibility of students not returning to campus next fall present budget challenges. 

Those are just a few pieces of the budget puzzle UCM administrators are dealing with today. 

Missouri Governor Mike Parsons cut higher education last week by $180 million. Part of that money may be returned to the schools when the federal stimulus money is finally released to the states. 

“UCM may lose some money or have to make up for other budget losses,” Bill Hawley, Vice President for Finance and Operations,  said. “Our appropriations for the 2019-2020 school year have been reduced by 8.33%, or just under $4.5 million.” 

The U.S. Department of Education announced that Kansas and Missouri’s two- and four-year colleges will receive $152 million in the first phase of COVID-19 emergency aid as part of the CARES Act. That’s about $28 million short of the Governor’s cuts. 

UCM will receive about $6.8 million and will use about 50% ($3.4 million) of that toward direct student aid for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations. How those funds will be accessed is still unknown, Hawley hopes to know more in the coming days. 

The other half of the funding will be used to help cover costs the University incurred with the move from face-to-face to online instruction. UCM is still waiting for specific instructions from the federal government regarding the funds. 

Students have also been receiving refunds for services not rendered due to the campus closing. These services, including parking passes and room and board, led to refunds of  little over $3 million. These refunds vary according to when the student moved out, or what specific meal plan they purchased. They have also become another difficult piece of the budgeting puzzle.

“Yes, that is a big hit to our budget,” Hawley said. “We have responded by limiting expenditures to only the most essential needs.”

To try to offset the oncoming budget reductions, UCM initiated a hiring freeze in mid-March. Hawley said he did not know when that would be removed. Some open positions are essential and the administration will be reviewing those openings on a case-by-case basis.

“Regarding the job losses, it is too early to say what the long-term impact will be,” Hawley said. 

Will UCM increase tuition to help offset these significant hits to the budget? That decision will come from the Board of Governors in May, Hawley said. 

There is a Missouri law that limits the amount tuition can increase, Hawley said. It is a complicated formula in which the consumer price index is an essential factor. 

UCM is finishing a restaurant called Crush in Elliot Student Union. Completion is expected later this summer. The funding for that came from capital investments and UCM’s food service vendor Sodexo, so that construction will not be impacted by these larger budget issues.

Hawley said other construction projects are planned, but might be on hold. UCM is reviewing all capital projects based upon the funding source, health and safety, and student impact. Hawley said they may have to prioritize  some classroom-related projects as they have a significant effect on student learning. There are some less important projects being postponed. President Best and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Philip Brigmon are also trying to deal with the issue of Commencement—a special time for UCM seniors. Graduation ceremonies were recently moved to Aug. 1, but that assumes the pandemic will be over by then. The rescheduled date was developed in consultation among UCM’s planning committees and the President’s Council. 

“When we look toward August 1st for our rescheduled commencement, we are hopeful as an institution and academic community that we will be able to celebrate our graduates properly,” Bridgmon said. 

“Commencement is a time to honor those who have achieved the highest standards and those reaching to get a degree in a job they want,” he said. Schools across the nation are also postponing their commencements until the beginning of August. 

In a campus wide announcement last week, UCM seniors were told that they could participate in the December commencement if they cannot make it to the August event. 

Another concern is enrollment if the pandemic carries over into the fall semester. Will students feel safe to go back to school? 

“There are some cases where the pandemic can both positively and negatively influence enrollment,” Bridgmon said. 

“For example, face-to-face enrollments have been experiencing headwinds prior to COVID-19 as more prospective students chose to enter the workforce or take courses on a part-time basis,” Bridgmon said. 

Many students may try to go back to school to get their degree, and now may be a good time. 

“UCM has many academic options and support systems that can assist students with safely working towards their educational goals,” Bridgmon said. “Early registration and fall admission numbers indicate a potential drop in fall enrollment.” 

But UCM is building for multiple plans. The administration is working through many options at several planning levels for the fall semester. 

“At this point, I expect that we will be able to resume face-to-face classes in the fall,” Bridgmon said. 

Some classes are hard to move online, according to Bridgmon. Science is a prime example. Bridgmon said College of Health, Science and Technology Dean Alice Greife and her faculty are working through different options to provide the best learning environment. Some areas require more individualized instruction and technical application to achieve the course outcomes. 

Bridgmon, Best and students across the state hope that UCM will be in an excellent position to maintain enrollment in those areas this fall.

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