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With costs up and revenue down for public colleges during the pandemic, one governor has a plan: Refinance

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) this month in Richmond. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam offered relief to public colleges and universities in the state Tuesday with a refinancing plan that could save the institutions more than $300 million over the next two years, delaying debt payments as they grapple with the coronavirus.

With colleges across the country battered by the increased cost of operating during a pandemic, public schools in particular are bracing for government funding cuts that could further damage their finances. By using the state’s AAA bond rating to obtain favorable interest rates, Virginia is taking an innovative approach to help ease the strain.

Colleges are facing added uncertainty as well as expenses, Northam (D) said Tuesday at George Mason University, where he announced the plan. “But one side effect of the pandemic has potential to help,” he said. “That’s the low interest rates that we are seeing right now.”

“Families all over the country are taking advantage of record-low interest rates to refinance their home mortgages, and we want our public institutions to benefit as well,” Northam said. “Refinancing will free up millions of dollars in savings, allowing our colleges and universities to make critical investments, meet the needs of Virginia students and continue offering a world-class education.”

Officials at GMU are still analyzing the details of the proposal, said Gregory Washington, the school’s president. The university is facing a $109 million gap, he said, more than 10 percent of its total budget.

“What the state has put forward is a great step,” Washington said Wednesday. “It’s going to definitely be helpful. It’s not going to resolve our fiscal challenge — I can tell you that unequivocally.”

The plan could produce a wide range of savings at different schools. According to the governor’s office, it could save $58 million at GMU, nearly $44 million at James Madison University, $40 million at Virginia Tech, nearly $13 million at Virginia State University and $344,000 at the University of Virginia.

At Tuesday’s announcement, Northam was joined by Washington and some Democratic legislative leaders, who committed to support the portion of the plan that would require lawmakers’ approval.

The plan would refinance bonds issued by the Treasury Board of Virginia and the Virginia College Building Authority that schools use for capital projects. Schools could defer their principal payments.

Some of the bonds are general-obligation bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the commonwealth, said Aubrey Layne, secretary of finance, and require approval by two-thirds of the General Assembly. Others are backed by revenue from the institutions, and although the state stands behind them, they don’t require legislative approval. Layne said he anticipates legislative support for the measure.

University leaders have been talking with the governor’s office about the ongoing costs related to the coronavirus, Layne said. “This gives them a two-year window where they have flexibility to use that money” on other needs, he said.

Washington, the GMU president, said he appreciated the efforts of the governor and other state leaders to help struggling schools. “The fact of the matter is we need cash now,” he said.

Still, he noted, “They delayed our payments, but we still have to make the payments. And during the time of the delay, we’re still accruing interest."

Universities have faced numerous economic challenges during the pandemic, such as lower enrollment and therefore reduced revenue from tuition and fees; higher costs related to social distancing requirements; the expense of virus testing; and increased costs and decreased revenue from athletics. According to Sue Menditto, senior director of accounting policy with the National Association of College and University Business Officers, public institutions typically have not had access to some of the loan programs created for coronavirus relief, such as the Main Street Lending Program and the Paycheck Protection Program.

“As stewards of the Commonwealth’s finances, we are always seeking creative solutions to financial issues,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William) said in a statement. “Helping public colleges and universities restructure their debt obligations allows them to focus their resources on the pressing needs they face right now as a result of the pandemic.”

Caitlyn Read, a spokeswoman for JMU, said the school is analyzing how the plan might influence its budget.

“James Madison University is thankful to the Northam administration for their continued support of higher education,” she wrote in an email, “and the increased financial flexibility during these most challenging times.”