Over six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis & Clark is “faring well” amid an unprecedented economic downturn that has threatened colleges and universities across the country.
According to Andrea Dooley, chief financial officer and vice president for operations, LC has remained financially stable by accepting federal aid, maintaining a relatively normal student population, cutting costs and making strategic revisions to the 2020-21 budget.
“From a Lewis & Clark perspective, I’d say we’re faring well,” Dooley said. “If I take a look back, we closed the (2019-20) year out pretty well.”
Since March, when LC transitioned to fully remote learning, the college has taken steps to protect its finances while also preparing to welcome students back for the Fall 2020 semester. In April, President Wim Wiewel announced via email that “many staff, and all of the senior leadership, (were) taking partial furloughs” in an effort to save jobs and “protect the long-term future of Lewis & Clark.” This news was preceded by the controversial decision to not rebate the Spring 2020 tuition while going forward with cost of attendance increases for Fall 2020. During this period, LC received federal assistance through the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in late March, which included at least $728,200 in emergency grants for impacted students.
According to Dooley, the college decided to move forward with Fall 2020 in-person instruction in Spring 2020. While other regional institutions, including the University of Portland, opted for a fully remote fall term, LC spent the summer preparing to reopen campus and welcome returning community members. In fact, LC did not make financial projections for a scenario where the Fall 2020 semester would be fully remote.
“Our intention, since the spring, has been to prioritize in-person instruction because we know that’s what part of the LC experience is really about,” Dooley said. “We never really took a step back and said ‘what would the numbers look like if we didn’t open’ because our intention was always to open.”
Over the summer, as colleges nationwide began announcing plans for the fall term, a widespread theme emerged: cost of attendance would not be discounted. At LC, where students were given the option of fully or partially remote instruction or, for some classes, a fully in-person education, many were dismayed that the $70,000 undergraduate cost of attendance would not change. According to Dooley, though the idea of adjusting cost of attendance was discussed, administrators realized that LC could not afford to reduce costs for Fall 2020.
“The question (of whether to adjust cost of attendance) certainly came up,” Dooley said. “We talked about the fact that that concept was out there. Ultimately, the cost to provide the Lewis & Clark experience isn’t changing, it’s becoming more expensive as a result of COVID-19. Our ability to reduce the cost for students was not possible.”
The consequential decision to reopen campus meant that LC would have to incur costs related to COVID-19 testing and campus sanitization. For the 2020-21 academic year, Dooley estimates that the college will spend $1.5 million on testing and $425,000 for additional custodial staff. Dooley hopes that these estimates are “conservative,” but notes that “the actual amount that (LC) will spend will really depend on what’s happening on campus.”
Additionally, Dooley estimates that the college has spent around $200,000 on technology to make classes remotely accessible.
Administrators were not entirely sure how COVID-19 would impact the enrollment of first-year students. Before the pandemic began, LC was aiming for 526 students in the class of 2024. Currently, there are 513 first-year students. According to Eric Staab, vice president for admissions and financial aid, part of the reason why LC succeeded in enrolling that many first-years was because of its messaging over the summer.
“Some schools had a nebulous response to what things might look like (in the fall), while we more clearly stated ‘this is what our plan is,’” Staab said. “By mid-June, we saw that deposit numbers were much more robust than we had feared. I think (LC) was very stable before the pandemic, and we’re pretty darn stable now.”
On top of 513 enrolled first-years, over 100 admitted students decided to defer for one year, two to three times the number seen in a typical academic year. There were also 36 students that transferred to LC, just one short of the post-pandemic goal of 37 transfer students and nine less than the pre-pandemic goal of 45.
Beyond the class of 2024, Staab reported that LC retained fewer current sophomores and seniors than administrators had hoped. The junior class, however, was retained at the level projected by the college.
Before Fall 2020 enrollment and retention numbers were available, there was concern among administrators, faculty and staff that job cuts would happen if there was a substantial drop in the student population. Associate Professor of History and Program Director for Asian Studies Susan Glosser, a member of the faculty-led Budget Advisory Committee, commented on these fears and the relatively stable state of the undergraduate student body.
“There was a lot of concern that if we came back and, worst case scenario, only 50% of students returned, then would we have to furlough?” Glosser said. “If so, would we have to furlough not only staff, but faculty, too? It didn’t happen. We have almost as many students as we had last year.”
Staab estimates that the Financial Aid office saw a tripling of students requesting revisions to aid packages. While many students have expressed disappointment over their financial awards for the 2020-21 academic year, Staab said that LC was more generous than usual.
“We were more liberal and we were freer in what we awarded to make it financially possible for families and students to come back,” Staab said. “We are definitely spending more on financial aid this year than we have in previous years.”
Despite the extraordinary challenges brought about by COVID-19, Dooley is confident that LC has implemented strong strategies to maintain long-term financial stability.
“I think there is a lot that is still unclear for what this year will look like,” Dooley said. “Right now, I’m really optimistic that we have come up with a revised budget that doesn’t deplete the financial resources of the college. If we’re able to execute on that, I don’t anticipate that there will be any significant long-term impact.”