CORONAVIRUS

Iowa's universities report coronavirus blow in the hundreds of millions

Board of Regents propose freezing tuition and fees

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — Iowa’s public universities collectively project taking at least a $193 million hit from coronavirus-related losses and expenses through the summer, and may see enrollment declines this fall.

As bleak as those projections Thursday were, they do not even include the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Despite those monumental losses, the Iowa Board of Regents on Thursday proposed keeping tuition rates and fees flat for the coming fall, an aberration from its original plan for five years of increases.

“The COVID-19 epidemic is unprecedented,” according to the tuition proposal. “It is important that our students, families and our institutions have as much financial predictability as possible. Therefore, it is recommended there be no increases in tuition rates or mandatory fees.”

The presidents of the University of Iowa and Iowa State University told the board Thursday they expect COVID-19 losses and expenses to top $76 million and $89 million respectively. And both projected smaller freshman classes.

University of Northern Iowa leaders, saying it’s too soon to gauge fall enrollment, projected COVID-19 losses and expenses at $28 million.

With UI Health Care looking at about $70 million in losses and expenses to date, that brings the total financial blow to regents enterprises to at least $263 million, board President Michael Richards said Thursday.

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“We know it is significant,” he said. “We cannot focus on returning to business as usual. We must be proactive about the hurdles ahead, and redesign our universities to make them stronger.”

That could include expanding opportunities for students enrolled at one regent university to take classes online from another regent university, Richards said.

“We must look at whether administrative functions at all three universities can be consolidated,” he said. “We also need to consider whether to put a moratorium on new construction.

“Change is hard,” he said. “It is necessary. We will adapt. We will adjust. We will continue to provide an affordable, accessible, high quality education for all of our students.”

After hearing of the unprecedented challenges facing Iowa’s public universities and special schools, the board Thursday announced an advisory group of four regents tasked with reviewing administrative and academic collaborations and efficiencies.

The group — which will be broken into sub groups — will bring recommendations to the full board in November, Richards said.

Tuition freeze

Just minutes after Richards’ comments wrapped a special meeting to discuss the financial impact of COVID-19 on the campuses, the board called another special meeting for Monday to hold a first consideration of the proposed tuition and fees freeze for the 2020-21 academic year. Regents will not yet take a final vote.

The freeze would keep UI rates at $8,073 for resident undergraduates and $30,036 for non-resident undergraduates. ISU resident undergraduate rates would hold at $8,042 and its non-resident undergraduate rates at $23,230. And UNI — which held rates flat last fall — would keep its resident undergraduate tuition at $7,665 and non-resident undergraduate rates at $18,207.

The universities will maintain differential tuition rates for costlier programs — like those in engineering, medicine, business and law.

The frozen rates would all three public universities below the average cost to attend their respective peer institutions — with the UI and ISU at or near the bottom of their peer groups.

Financial hurt

The need to keep costs low to maintain enrollment and support recruitment in these unprecedented times makes state aid and continued support from the Legislature paramount, UI President Bruce Harreld told the regents.

“As I’ve said many, many times, without strong, predictable financial commitments from our state, it’s extremely difficult for us to maintain the excellence that you and Iowans expect from us,” he said. “It’s times like this that state support becomes even more vital in order for us to deliver our mission to the state.”

The university, as the crisis developed, prioritized the safety of its community and took “deliberate steps” to protect “students, faculty, and staff, as well as our surrounding community,” Harreld told the board.

“Our strategy of doing things right, not fast, is what allowed us in 60 days to cancel study abroad programs; repatriate students, faculty and staff; move completely to virtual instruction; shift to work-from-home status; close our residence hall system; mothball research; cancel elective health procedures; and stand up new supply chains for the university and the state,” he said.

He said the campus will use that “right, not fast” strategy in gradually resuming daily campus activities.

But, in doing all that, the university has taken a major budgetary blow, amounting to over $76 million through August — excluding the hospital.

ISU’s projection of an $89 million hit from March through August includes lost revenue and refunds — like for housing and dining contracts — and $1 million in new expenses.

“It is important to note that the figures do not include our research enterprise,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said. “We continue to gather information about the financial impact of reduced research operations. In addition, we understand the circumstances of this crisis continue to change rapidly and will undoubtedly have additional financial implications, for which we must account.”

Enrollment forecasts

With much unknown about what the fall semester will look like — including potential social distancing measures, personal protective equipment mandates, housing arrangements and virtual options — the UI and ISU said they expected decreases in enrollment.

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Harreld said he’s expecting a drop in undergraduates, noting recruiting for the new class is down 9 to 10 percent.

“So instead of a class of close to 5,000, we’re looking at 4,500,” he said. “So we’re a little bit down there. Most of the returning classes are returning.”

But he voiced concern about international student enrollment, which already had been declining at the university — and many other U.S. institutions — before COVID-19 hit. International students pay the highest tuition rates.

“Fortunately, we’ve actually been doing our fiscal modeling without them in it because of these uncertainties,” Harreld said.

ISU also projects losses in international students, Wintersteen said.

“International students, we don’t think — even though they’re very interested in coming — may not be able to get the visa to get into the country,” she said.

ISU is exploring offering those students the option of starting their first semester online.

“We’re taking some steps to address what we see will be the problem for some very good students coming from other countries,” she said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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