McFeely: More challenges, but perhaps post-pandemic opportunities for higher ed

Budget stresses will be daunting, but tough economic times often spark college enrollment

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Anne Blackhurst, president of Minnesota State University Moorhead, says the economic fallout from the pandemic will present budget issues for the school but also might spur more people to enroll in college. Special to The Forum

It was a rough week at Minnesota State University Moorhead, where President Anne Blackhurst announced the cutting of 10 majors and more than 60 jobs.

The cuts, while made public in the midst of the financially crippling coronavirus lockdown, had nothing to do with the pandemic. The university faced a $6 million budget gap even before the country's unemployment rate skyrocketed because the economy shut down from measures taken to slow the spread of the virus.

But the cuts got me thinking: If MSUM was struggling before the virus hit, when the economy was OK, what are things going to look like on the other side?

And not just for MSUM, but for higher education in general?

Already smacked by declining enrollment and under attack for being too expensive and even unnecessary, what awaits higher ed in a post-pandemic world of economic struggle?


The answer from Blackhurst and others, including a campus-wide email sent Friday by North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani, sketches a picture of deep challenges tempered by the possibility of opportunity.

"The pandemic will not be favorable to our budget, but I'm not completely pessimistic," Blackhurst said.

Minnesota's state colleges and universities had already seen declining state financial support the last couple of decades, forcing schools to depend heavily on enrollment for their budgets. With state budgets decimated by pandemic-related issues, that is unlikely to improve.

Family budgets are going to be tight, too, as millions of Americans are losing jobs and income. Going to college, already expensive in good times, might be out of reach for even more people.

And with uncertainty whether campuses will re-open in the fall, or whether students will be forced to learn online, some might choose to sit things out until conditions improve. None of which is good for higher ed. Fewer students mean leaner budgets mean more cuts. The dispiriting cycle continues.

On the other hand, Blackhurst said the possibility of tough times might spur more people to go to college. People who chose to work during a strong economy and lost their job because of the pandemic might seek a degree.

"Historically, extended economic downturns have led to increased college enrollment because people are trying to increase their job opportunities," she said. "Here at MSUM and at some of the other regional schools, there's the chance students will want to stay close to home instead of going to a faraway dream college that might be more expensive. They might seek a more affordable opportunity."

In an email to campus, Bresciani raised a similar possibility that Blackhurst did — that high unemployment might lead to more "non-traditional" students enrolling at NDSU. He said expanding online programs could be key to attracting older students who lost their job during the pandemic.


"Whether these prospective students already have a degree, have some credits towards a degree, or never went to college, we should be ready to welcome them into our NDSU community," Bresciani wrote. "I want to challenge each of us, particularly our faculty, to plan how to academically serve this population, and to do so quickly."

Bresciani said, too, that students forced this semester into online learning are saying they prefer being on-campus and going to classrooms. Blackhurst said she's heard the same thing from MSUM students displaced by the coronavirus changes, that they are getting by with online classes but prefer face-to-face learning.

In others words, kids who go to college really want to "go" to college.

"Our faculty and students have accomplished an amazing transformation this semester into the virtual format, but overwhelmingly they sound eager to return to campus and in-person classes," Bresciani wrote.

Could some college campuses shutter from the financial strain wrought by the virus? Recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education indicated hundreds of small, private colleges were already "walking dead" because of financial stress. And that was before the coronavirus because part of our everyday lexicon.

"The fact is, nobody really knows what's going to happen because nobody knows when this will end or how long it will take for things to return to something we'd consider normal," Blackhurst said. "Maybe this will remind people why higher education is important. I don't know."

Like so many other things during these strange times, the precise answer will have to wait.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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