Elon University spent more money than anticipated during the fall semester due to pandemic related costs, according to Provost Aswani Volety.
Representatives of the university did not say how much was planned for in the annual budget or how much more it spent than anticipated during the fall semester. Among the expenses were COVID-19 tests, cleaning supplies and the personal protection equipment required to open campus safely.
“While we did spend more money than anticipated on the COVID-related expenses, we’re hoping by the end of the year, it’ll be offset by reduction [of] expenses,” Volety said. “You can’t really look at it at this point in time, but by the end of the fiscal year, I think it’ll even out.”
When students began online learning last spring, the university refunded nearly $13.5 million to students for meal plans and housing, and the university budget was reduced by 5%. To adjust their budget, some departments left open positions unfilled or eliminated travel expenses that were already being curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions. Owen Covington, director of the Elon University News Bureau, said the budget was adjusted last spring to account for the costs associated with the university’s “extensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” and has not been adjusted since.
One factor working in Elon’s favor was a longtime policy by the board of trustees that required the university to maintain an emergency reserves fund, which is 10% of the operating budget. Volety likened the reserve as a “rainy day fund.” The reserve allowed the university to absorb expenses, such as room and board reimbursements.
Volety said the $1.49 million the university received in May as part of the federal aid from the CARES Act as well as money borrowed from the board reserve went toward COVID-related costs, including upgrading technology in classrooms for remote learning and stocking cleaning supplies across campus. While the university will not have to pay back CARES Act funding, Volety said the money from the board reserve is to be repaid over two years.
Volety said that each coronavirus PCR test could cost anywhere from $80 to $150. During one of the largest weeks of random testing in the fall semester, the university administered 327 PCR tests, according to the COVID-19 dashboard. The cost of administering this many PCR tests could have been anywhere between $26,160 to $49,050 — the latter is more than a full year of undergraduate tuition.
During the winter and spring semesters, the university is using antigen testing, which Volety said could cost as low as $10 for the test and distribution. Antigen testing also takes less time to return results, meaning students can be tested more frequently. Students are now being tested weekly for COVID-19.
According to Volety, testing more frequently is not just a precaution against COVID-19 but could also reduce costs for the university. More frequent testing will allow the university to identify clusters faster, Volety said, as well as decrease the amount of close personal contacts of a positive COVID-19 case.
“Because we have testing every week, we don’t need to spend as much money isolating students,” Volety said. “All of our quarantine insurance... We were spending a lot of money on hotels.”
While the cost of a student in quarantine at nearby hotels is not the same as what a community member would pay, Volety said the quarantine expenses are “not cheap.”
Elon, like many private colleges, relies on tuition and room and board rather than state allocated funds. Michael Nietzel, former president of Missouri State University and senior contributor for Forbes, said the biggest challenges of the financial crisis will be faced by private institutions.
“Small private colleges, particularly those that do not enjoy an elite status, face serious financial threats,” Nietzel wrote in an email to Elon News Network. “They depend on tuition and room and board fees, and students are going to be reluctant to make a commitment to those schools unless they are reassured that a normal, in-person residential college experience will be available.”
The university did increase tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year by $1,806 for full-time residential students, a 3.7% increase from the 2019-2020 academic year. Volety said there could be an increase in tuition for next year as well, proportioned to the increase in cost of living. By comparison, inflation as measured by the consumer price index increased in the South from 2019 to 2020 by .96%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, increasing tuition would be counterproductive to the university’s stated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, according to Asha Banerjee, a policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, which studies issues related to racial and economic justice. By increasing tuition, universities close themselves off to historically marginalized populations, Banerjee said. One of Elon’s stated goals for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts debuted in the fall was to increase minority student enrollment.
“Universities need to find this money from somewhere, but squeezing it out of the very people who they are entrusted to care for and provide an education and a home for should not be the solution,” Banerjee said.
Patrick Murphy, director of financial aid, said raising tuition would also increase the amount of financial aid students need. Despite the pandemic’s financial impact, the university’s financial aid budget did not increase for the 2020-2021 academic year. Financial aid, which comes from interest on the university endowment fund and tuition, does not fluctuate based on the amount of need in a given year. Murphy said one of the biggest challenges the Office of Financial Aid faced this semester was not being able to increase financial aid for students whose financial situations changed.
“We’ve got a finite amount of money that’s assigned to us out of the overall budget of the university for financial aid, and we don’t have the capability of just increasing students financial aid packages,” Murphy said. “It’s tough on us because we have a lot of people thinking that we’re going to be able to solve all of the issues that have been brought about by the pandemic, but we don’t have the money to do that.”
Murphy said because the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the current year accounts for a family or individual’s financial situation from the previous year, the financial aid office will not face as many new challenges next year, but could during the following academic year, 2022-2023.
“In two years is what I’m more concerned about, because the FAFSA for the 2022 year is going to be based on everyone’s income for 2020,” Murphy said. “Schools around the country are not going to have the capability of just suddenly increasing everyone’s financial aid to match what the FAFSA is saying.”
When the university tightened the budget, departments across campus had to find ways to trim their own expenses. But for the Office of Student Involvement, the budget did not change — instead, student involvement spent its money differently. Activities on campus like Late Night Elon and weekend activities are funded by a portion of the student activity fee, a set amount of money all full-time undergraduate students pay each semester. For the 2020-2021 academic year, students paid $146 each semester. Student involvement fees, much like tuition rates, are set by the Board of Trustees.
“We know that the social connection that students really enjoy and part of what makes Elon such a special place are those relationships,” said Janis Baughman, director of student involvement. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to continue that and there won’t be a budgetary impact that limits our ability to offer that for students.”