Pandemic reveals strains in higher education, panelists say

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U.S. institutions of higher learning badly need to scale back reliance on tuition and rethink their revenue sources. 

So says Linda LeMura, president of LeMoyne College. The first female layperson to head the Syracuse Jesuit liberal arts school, LeMura spoke Thursday to more than 100 virtual attendees of “Rebuild Upstate: Lessons in Higher Education,” the third in the Rochester Beacon and Upstate Venture Connect’s series of Rebuild Upstate webinars.

Even before the pandemic put them under heavy financial strains, private and public American colleges and universities had become overly dependent on hefty annual tuition increases, LeMura says.  

Tuition hikes that routinely far outpace the rate of inflation are pricing too many lower-income and middle-income students out of the market, she believes. Families that themselves are under greater pressure as COVID-19 erases more than a decade of the nation’s economic gains will find college an increasingly unaffordable luxury.

LeMura’s fellow panelist, Randall Van Wagoner, president of Mohawk Valley Community College, concurs. 

In the future, Van Wagoner suggests, institutions of higher learning will need to look more to business partnerships and other sources to grow revenue.

Public and private colleges and universities were increasingly feeling a financial pinch before the pandemic hit, both college presidents say. COVID-19 accelerated the trend, packing financial strains that might have had 10 years to reach their current level into the past few months, Van Wagoner says.

For colleges and universities, the pandemic will usher in “a great sorting period,” he predicts.

As financial pressures on institutions of higher learning continue to mount, many colleges and universities will consolidate, joining together in cooperative programs and shared services, while some will simply go under, Van Wagoner and LeMura agree.  

Despite such pressures, both college presidents are relatively upbeat over their schools’ immediate prospects.

LeMura sees the pandemic as likely to spark a resurgence of the humanities. To face an increasingly uncertain future, students who will soon enter adult society and the workforce will need to learn to “be comfortable with ambiguity,” a skill that a broad liberal arts background fosters.

Challenges LeMoyne faces as it reopens this fall both terrify and excite her, confesses LeMura, who has headed the Jesuit school since 2014. 

Onondaga County currently has a less than 1 percent rate of coronavirus infection, she says. But that doesn’t mean the area will not see a surge. Still, she adds, “risk can be mitigated.” 

In any event, the school will follow guidelines laid out by the state.

Van Wagoner agrees.

“Masks, masks, masks,” says the MVCC president, encapsulating his school’s reopening challenge in a three-word mantra. 

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. All coronavirus articles are collected here.

One thought on “Pandemic reveals strains in higher education, panelists say

  1. A good article , but it does not look at expenses , especially at private colleges . The cost of a college education is the only thing in the last 30 years that has gone up more than health care over the same period . Look at the change in salaries at the top , and look at how the number of administrators and their pay has grown compared to professors . Granted it’s been a long time for me as I began State College in the fall of 1969 . I played on the freshman football team that year . Just about every high school and college football coach thought Alabama’s Bear Bryant was the best and he never made six figures , let alone high seven figures . In addition we did not have up to 20% 0f the courses taught by graduate assistants and/or ad hoc teachers hires , paid by the course , that ended up with a near poverty wage at the end of the year . I believe my State College President was paid about a ten percent differential over a tenured professor , got a place to live in with a couple of Greek columns on the porch , and maybe a leased Chevy . The “greed is good ” culture of entitlement infected higher learning , as it did everything else , and also requires some academic introspection . Accountability requires no less .

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