Ask professionals at any level of the state’s educational system about what the fall semester holds, and the best you’ll get is an educated guess. From athletics to remote learning to social distancing on the commons, everything about the upcoming school year — particularly for the state’s colleges — is awash in uncertainty.
Not the least of these questions: Can anyone afford to show up once campuses open?
“I missed the chapter in the president’s training school about dealing with a pandemic,” joked John Hogan, president of National Park College in Hot Springs. “This has been a one-of-a-kind unpredictable sort of situation. I’m a little shy about trying to predict the future, but obviously I’m concerned.”
As much time and resources as it takes to create new sanitation protocols, secure enough personal protective equipment (PPE) or police social distancing on campus, such things can and have been accommodated at most of Arkansas’ colleges and universities. But what isn’t as easily fixed are the thousands of students who find themselves facing a new financial reality, having lost out on summer job income or whose families are suffering financial hardships from being furloughed or their small business operating at a fraction of capacity.
“Of all the things that we do, hearing the student voice is the most important, in my opinion. And this affordability issue is something that we hear from our students,” Hogan said. “The steps that we’ve taken are, we’re keeping tuition and fees flat. We’re investing in our scholarship budget. Our foundation team and foundation board of directors has established a relief fund. We’re trying to get the word out, to communicate with students that our goal is to have them back and in a safe learning environment.”
The impact of the pandemic on college students and their families has been nothing short of catastrophic. Nearly 60 percent of college students reported they can no longer afford their tuition, per a OneClass survey of 10,000 college freshmen, sophomores and juniors released in June. And among graduating high school seniors, polled by NitroCollege.com, 55 percent of students and nearly seven in 10 parents report COVID-19 had dramatically affected their ability to pay for school.
Thus far, Washington D.C., hasn’t stepped in to directly bail out college students who face increased financial need. However, Maria Markham, director of the Arkansas Division of Higher Education, said the feds have distributed other funding that, while not directly impacting student aid, reaches students by other channels.
“They didn’t really increase available funds, but the CARES Act did provide some relief for students,” Markham said. “Of the federal CARES Act funds we as a state received for all of higher ed, we had 73 separate entities receive these funds.
“We received about $60 million given to students to offset the additional burden imposed by coronavirus, whether it was food services being shut down temporarily and they had to eat at other places or closing down dorms and students being displaced. Some chose to drop a class or two because of the situation, and they needed additional funds to replace those courses in the summer or make those up in the fall.”
Such efforts are likely not going to cut it on their own. Half of all undergraduates said they needed additional financial help to pay for school, and 7 percent said they were dropping out entirely due to cost, OneClass reported. Less drastic measures for many include changing their college choice or timeline: The College Savings Foundation found 15 percent of students are switching from a private to a public institution; nearly 30 percent plan to take a gap year to build their resources; and 36 percent of students plan on attending a two-year college to save on cost, up from 28 percent pre-COVID-19.
The latter statistic bodes well for schools like National Park College, which boasts cost of attendance at about half of the average Arkansas institution of higher learning. But Hogan isn’t popping any corks just yet.
“The economics of the past was, if the economy was struggling, then community college enrollment would go up,” he said. “But I don’t think that past performance is necessarily predictive of what the future will look like.”
It may be small consolation, but there is a bright side to the situation for college students in Arkansas. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Arkansas is the second-most affordable state in the nation when it comes to public four-year colleges and universities. Based on 2016-2017 numbers, Arkansas students paid an average in-state tuition of just more than $20,000 per year, second only to West Virginia and well below both the national average and that of NCES’ Southern Regional Education Board comprised of states throughout the South and southeast plus Maryland and Delaware.
Markham said this statistic is proof of the state’s higher ed commitment to curtailing cost and making it affordable. And during these extraordinary times, even more so.
“A lot of our institutions have already announced they’re not going to increase tuition for the fall to help students. And that’s really tough on institutions when they’re also seeing an increase in costs to deal with coronavirus outcomes,” she said. “The other thing we were able to do is increase flexibility for students. We waived some of our continuing eligibility requirements for our state scholarships in response to coronavirus. We didn’t hold students to the required number of completed hours for the semester, and we also are waiving the requirement for GPA for this year.
“This means if they had disruptions, and they needed to drop a class or maybe migrate to online, which was not something they were as proficient with and their GPA suffered a bit, they don’t have to worry about their scholarships being renewed in the fall because of it.”
Markham said preliminary feedback she’s received from member institutions suggests only a modest decrease in forecasted enrollment numbers. However, she said, it’s still very early to tell what the new academic year holds.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen in the fall.