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Colleges Slash Budgets in the Pandemic, With ‘Nothing Off-Limits’

A Chronicle of Higher Education database tracking the budgetary triage has documented more than 100 such suspended programs, from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences, which will not take new doctoral students next fall, to Rice University, which paused admissions to all five of the Ph.D. programs in its school of humanities.

Most of the suspensions are in social sciences and humanities programs where the universities — rather than outside funders such as corporations, foundations and the federal government — typically underwrite the multiyear financial aid packages offered to doctoral students. University officials say the suspensions are necessary to ensure their strapped budgets can continue supporting students already in Ph.D. pipelines.

But Suzanne T. Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, noted that interrupting that pipeline could also have a lingering impact on the higher education work force, diverting promising students from low-income households, for example, or discouraging candidates who might bring much needed diversity to faculty rosters.

As it is, the pandemic has had an outsize impact on less affluent students: A survey of 292 private, nonprofit schools released last week by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities reported a nearly 8 percent decrease in enrollment among students who receive federal Pell Grants.

“A couple years off is not necessarily the end of the world and may even be a wise thing,” Ms. Ortega said. “But if our universities don’t remain in touch with those students, and connect with them, and encourage them to keep thinking about grad school, we could have our own lost generation of students who get busy with other things and then don’t fulfill their dreams.”

As schools exhaust the possibilities of trims around the margins, what is left, administrators say, is payroll, typically the largest line item in higher education. Since February, when the coronavirus hit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that colleges and universities have shed more than 300,000 mostly nonfaculty jobs.

“Some of these institutions have redone their budgets three, four, five times,” said Jim Hundrieser, vice president for consulting and business development at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, a professional organization for finance officers in higher education.

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