PORTSMOUTH — Seemingly no parts of society have been untouched by the tolls of the coronavirus, including higher education institutions such as Shawnee State University.
“The pandemic has created some challenges, but it hasn’t stopped us from delivering on our mission to prepare today’s students to succeed in tomorrow’s world,” said Elizabeth Blevins, SSU Executive Director of Marketing & Communications, through email.
The impact was first seen in the response to the virus itself as SSU converted hundreds of courses designed for inperson instruction into online formats and designated staff members to work remotely. More recently however, the university has been forced to adjust its budget after decreased state funding and declining enrollment.
Enrollment increased by nearly 12% last fall according to a news release, yet SSU still experienced a budget deficit for the financial year of 2020 which concluded in June. This follows Gov. Mike DeWine’s announcement in May that there be a $110 million reduction for state colleges over the course of two months.
“Decisions like this are extremely difficult, but are part of my responsibility, as your governor, to make,” tweeted DeWine, part of a series of cuts totaling $775 million for varying state expenditures. “Making difficult budget cut decisions now will help us down the road and will help us while we continue our discussions for the next fiscal year.”
With this in mind, the SSU board of trustees approved its latest budget in June listing reductions in personnel and non compensation expenses. Including a reduction of $1.2 million in expense reductions, the university made the following adjustments to “protect our core mission, quality of instruction, safety and service to our students.”
- Furloughed many of administrative and support staff over the summer.
- Eliminated over 30 vacant and filled jobs
- Realigned departments and services to gain efficiencies and permanent savings while preserving core student services and strategic initiatives.
- Disbanded the University College structure with key functions absorbed by the Office of the Provost and the College of Arts & Sciences.
- Repositioned financial aid with Admissions & Recruitment to form an Office of Enrollment Management.
- Streamlined administrative processes throughout the institution.
SSU did receive payments through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in multiple installments. Through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, the university obtained $3.5 million, 50% of that grant going directly to the students. With remaining institutional funds, used to purchase PPE, reimburse meal plans and transition classes online, SSU President Jeff Bauer said the university will try to provide further funds to students.
The second installment, arriving this summer, had eligibilty and timing constraints which need to be spent by the end of 2020. Bauer said that funding is being directed especially to testing residential students, employees in high-contact roles, and faculty teaching face-to-face.
Cuts from state funding were only part of the difficulties in creating this budget, as enrollment experienced a 6% decline this fall. Although better than expected, the decrease is worse than the national measure of undergraduate enrollment for public, four-year institutions, who experienced a 1.4% decrease this fall according to the latest National Student Clearinghouse Research Center figures.
Bauer said enrollment issues, with the exception for 2019, predated the coronavirus. After high rates of enrollment in 2011 and 2012, the university experienced significant difficulties in attracting new students and retaining those that decided to attend.
“In the fall of 2017 and the fall of 2018, we not only had much lower enrollment, but it was really quite unexpected,” said Bauer, serving the university for over 33 years with the last two as president. “We knew we would be down a bit, but we were down much more than we had budgeted for.”
This put SSU in a tough position, he said, but not one that was untreatable.
“We were in real difficult straits, but not to the point that we were not going to be solvent,” said Bauer. “We were getting into a position where we were no longer going to be sustainable for a long period of time.”
Adjustments were made in 2018, which Bauer said lead to the addition of 1,002 students in the fall of 2019 and 30% more than 2018’s first-year class.
Since the start of the semester Aug. 24, classes have been a combination of in person, online instruction, and hybrid courses with reduced in person schedules.
“We have adjusted our world,” said Blevins. “Our faculty, staff, and students have done the same.”
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.© 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.