Higher Ed ‘Will Never Be the Same:' Commissioner

With no clear timeline for when state colleges and universities can safely operate amid the coronavirus pandemic, academic institutions face uncertain future

UMass Boston

The public higher education system that abruptly shifted to a remote learning model earlier this year is now embarking on what officials described Tuesday as a second phase of its COVID-19 response — preparing for a variety of financial and operational scenarios that the next academic year might bring.

"Higher education, I believe, will never be the same, and rather than yearning for the past, we should take this opportunity to create a new and better future," Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago said.

During a video meeting of the Board of Higher Education, officials announced a new effort to get a handle on the financial challenges now confronting public community colleges and state universities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With college students across the state now learning online from home and no clear timeline for when social distancing guidelines will be lifted or relaxed to the point that dorms, dining halls and other staples of campus life can safely operate, colleges and universities face an uncertain landscape for the fall semester.

"As we look ahead, our challenges are changing from response to preparation for the unknown short- and longer-term future," North Shore Community College President Pat Gentile said. "We are feverishly working on those plans now."

Gentile referenced a report released Tuesday by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, which found that only seven states — she said Massachusetts is not among them — have fully recovered from higher education funding declines during the Great Recession.

"Our public higher education institutions have not yet recovered from the cuts enacted during the last recession," Gentile said. "This puts our sector in a very precarious financial status to withstand more appropriations reductions if the administration decides to use higher education as a budgetary pressure release valve in fiscal year 2021 and beyond."

Board of Higher Education chair Chris Gabrieli said the board, the Department of Higher Education and the 24 state universities and community colleges will work, with consultants at EY-Parthenon, over the next four to six weeks to develop a "system-wide view into the unique financial challenges posed by the current pandemic and all of its uncertainties."

That report will be shared at a special board meeting that will be scheduled for early or mid-June, Gabrieli said.

He said public and private higher education institutions "face an unprecedented planning and fiscal set of challenges here in May of 2020," with big factors "that drive a significant part of any college's budgeting" — enrollment, students' ability to return to campus, and state and federal funding — in flux.

"We need to have a clearer perspective understanding of the level and range of financial challenges and risk and to identify the keys to fiscal stability and health across the whole system," Gabrieli said.

An advisory board Gov. Charlie Baker established to plan for the state's economic reopening includes a higher education representative, Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Laurie Leshin. The board has a May 18 deadline to issue recommendations.

Leshin has put together a working group that includes representatives of public and private higher education institutions across Massachusetts, Education Secretary James Peyser said. Peyser said the group met for the first time Monday and will meet "pretty consistently" going forward to help inform the reopening plan.

As part of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts' monthly business confidence index report, which was released Tuesday, Elmore Alexander, the retired dean of the Ricciardi College of Business at Bridgewater State University, said one important economic milestone "will be whether college students return to campus in the fall."

Members of the board's Student Advisory Council stressed the importance of keeping students in the loop as campus officials make their decisions about the fall semester and beyond.

"These decisions are really going to impact how they want to continue on with their education in the next semester, in the next year, however long this kind of path continues," Bridgewater State University student Anna Grady said.

Max Page, the vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, cautioned against what he described as the "disturbing political virus of austerity" and urged the board to advocate for "New Deal-level" federal funding to support colleges and universities.

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