The University of Maine System announced on April 21 that it has created a Fall 2020 Safe Return Planning Committee in order to develop protocols to be implemented in the event that schools are able to re-open campuses for the fall semester. This was a prudent and necessary action on the part of the University of Maine System, but its announcement should not necessarily be considered a cause for optimism. The COVID-19 public health emergency has already had an impact on America’s colleges that will be felt for years to come, and as colleges balance their own preservation with the needs of students, it will be necessary for many families to consider whether they will be willing to pay for another online semester.
The closing of campuses and the transitioning to online learning have put a significant financial strain on nearly every college and university across the U.S. According to NPR, the University of Michigan estimates that it could lose up to $1 billion by the end of the year while many other colleges have initiated hiring freezes. Some Vermont state college campuses are facing the possibility of a permanent shutdown. According to the Portland Press Herald, the University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy has placed the state university system’s short-term losses at “considerably more” than $20 million. Some of the most significant expenses have been technology upgrades and partial room and board refunds for students.
Not to say that Malloy’s first concern is not the health and safety of its students, but potentially crippling financial losses are a clear motivator for portraying an optimistic outlook for reopening campuses in the fall. With unemployment reaching record numbers, families are thinking critically about whether or not they are willing to pay for a college education conducted online. Many schools are apt to take their time with announcing what sort of shape the fall semester will take as it is likely to affect enrollment, but, according to the Washington Post, some higher-education decision-makers have estimated that they can only wait until mid-June or July. UMaine faculty are preparing for both online and in-person instruction, but students need enough time to make their own decisions and arrangements.
To the University of Maine System’s credit, the Bangor Daily News reports that the university has currently planned to set aside $97 million for gift aid for the upcoming year. College education institutions in Maine and many other states are considering every possible half measure in order to bring students to campus and, in essence, justify the tuition that will keep them running. Some have considered delaying the semester until October or even January, and others, including UMaine, are considering breaking up large lecture courses in order to reduce student interaction. While such social distancing measures may have some effect, NPR has reported that Cornell researchers found no indication in their own studies that student interaction would be limited in any meaningful way.
While UMaine can do everything in its power to prepare for students to return in person, to university campuses, no amount of optimism can change the course of this pandemic. If there is no answer for the public health crisis by August, and classes look to be online for the fall semester, that may present the need for an open and honest dialogue between the university and students about what that should mean for tuition rates. In a time when the future is so uncertain, the most that students, faculty, and administrative leaders can do is temper expectations.