Declining enrollment, COVID-19 forces UofSC to find ways cut costs, increase revenue

Declining enrollment, COVID-19 forces UofSC to find ways cut costs, increase revenue
UofSC officials said last year, the biggest economic pressures came from having to close down in the spring and give refunds to students for things like housing, parking, and meal plans. (Source: WIS)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Declining enrollment has been a growing problem for colleges and universities across the nation for years, with the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reporting a 250,000 student decline from 2018 to 2019.

However, with the COVID-19 pandemic cutting into tuition revenue and driving up operating costs, it’s further increased the financial strain for many higher education institutions.

On Friday, the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees held a meeting with their Finance and Infrastructure committee getting some big updates on where the university stands in the last months of 2020 and how they plan to move forward.

“We wanted to protect the core functions of the university,” UofSC President Bob Caslen said. “At these unprecedented times, we shifted our target demographics with a market unable to bear tuition increases. We had to expand our efforts beyond just the normal administrative areas.”

UofSC officials said last year, the biggest economic pressures came from having to close down in the spring and give refunds to students for things like housing, parking, and meal plans. Officials said in planning the budget for 2021, there were the fear and expectation that the university would see steep declines in enrollment. However, officials said on that front, there’s some good news.

“In terms of 2021, we started out the year with a really conservative budget assuming that we would have a really dramatic reduction in enrollment, and that did not pan out,” Kelly Epting, the UofSC Associate Vice President of Finance and Budget, said. “We’ve actually done really well. We’ve seen a slight reduction but not as much as anticipated.”

When it comes to COVID-19 related expenses, officials said they’ve spent over $60 million this year and are expecting to take on around $22 million more before the year ends. They said they’ve had enough in reserve to combat these financial losses, but Caslen said during the meeting the university is facing other budgetary challenges with officials estimating the potential of close to $60 million dollars in recurring losses for the university in the future.

Caslen said in response to this, the university hired an outside agency called ABA, which focuses on education research. During the meeting, the group presented a set of preliminary recommendations for how the university can cut costs and save money.

“I know you all want us to move quickly, and I’m anxious to move forward as well,” Caslen said. “However, we have implemented this process to demonstrate a couple things I think are important. First, our commitment to shared governance, so we can assure our facility and thoroughly consider important details such as balancing cost reductions and the need for future investments.”

The challenge of decreasing enrollment and lost revenue is something officials said they are trying to combat sooner rather than later.

“In a world where traditional revenue, where I mean traditional, live instruction of students, where we don’t really see that population increasing, we are going to have to get in there and fight for that market and it’s hard to see where that’s really going to come from in the future. We’ll get there, but it’s hard to see today how we get it.”

ABA officials said they found multiple areas where UofSC can improve and invest.

“You have seen over the past five or so years, declines in masters and non-degree graduate enrollment, some declines in online programs enrollment, student debt has increased,” the ABA representative said.

Some of the key recommendations included changing the teaching requirements and schedule of adjunct professors to reduce staffing costs, combining smaller colleges, and building the online education degree program at the university. Officials predicted that increasing enrollment in the university’s online program could increase revenue by $30 million to $40 million dollars annually.

The Board of Trustees will be receiving the final report on Academic Cost Saving Opportunities during their March board meeting.

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