Colleges and universities are expected to receive billions of dollars from the coronavirus relief bill moving through Congress. But a top higher education advocate in Washington called funding levels “woefully inadequate” to stabilize a sector of the economy that is hemorrhaging cash.

With campuses across the country shuttered for the foreseeable future, many schools are issuing refunds for room and board, subsidizing plane and bus fare for students forced to leave in a hurry and absorbing myriad other unforeseen expenses and revenue losses.

Beyond those immediate troubles lies a grim fiscal landscape. Even if campuses somehow reopen soon, fall enrollment and revenue are almost impossible to project in a world rife with public health and economic uncertainties. Endowments shrink with every blow to global markets. State budgets are vulnerable.

Given those challenges, the American Council on Education and other higher-ed groups last week pleaded with Congress for more than $50 billion in relief. The bill pending in the Senate on Wednesday evening appears to grant higher education about $14 billion. Much of that, according to the text of the bill, will target student emergency aid.

Ted Mitchell, president of the council, which represents college and university presidents, said the funding level was “woefully inadequate.”

“Campuses are losing staggering sums after closing for safety reasons and refunding tuition, room and board, and other auxiliary revenues,” Mitchell said in a statement. “If these needs are not met, students are going to suffer financially and may drop out.”

The stimulus bill also includes about $13.5 billion for elementary and secondary education, meant to help pay for costs of school closures, including the purchase of computers for students to use at home and other expenses of distance learning.

But it’s colleges and universities, including many that were struggling before this crisis erupted, that may need the infusion to survive. Last week, Mitchell told The Washington Post he fears that some colleges will close absent enough government aid.

In California, Notre Dame de Namur University, which had about 1,500 students in fall 2018, announced this week that it has suspended admission of new students as it retrenches amid ongoing financial troubles.

“We hope to find a way to remain open in the future, but we cannot make that guarantee,” the private Catholic school said on its website.

Trustees of public Central Washington University, with 12,000 students, declared a “state of financial exigency.” They ordered the university president to “pursue any measures that are legal and necessary to preserve the educational and financial integrity” of the school.

Moody’s Investors Service last week downgraded its higher education outlook from stable to negative.

From small private colleges to big public university systems, fears are mounting about cash flow.

At the University of Wisconsin system, which encompasses the state flagship in Madison and 12 regional campuses, officials estimate they are paying out about $78 million for refunds of room and board charges after clearing students out of residence halls.

“We decided to refund this because we thought that was simply the ethical thing to do,” said system President Ray Cross. Students and families need the money, he said. “Of course, this is a huge revenue hit.”

Cross said he foresees many other problems, including the uncertainty of summer sessions and other operations on campuses. The system has about 40,000 employees, he said, and is the largest employer in Wisconsin. He worries about how fast he can cut expenses if revenue tanks. “We need support from the state, from the federal government, just to stabilize our institutions,” he said.

Pennsylvania State University estimated that prorated room and board refunds will cost $41.8 million. But Penn State spokesman Wyatt DuBois said the 24-campus public system will also lose money from its shuttered conference centers, hotels and airport.

“The university is spending significant time to better understand the likely duration of this event and develop a strategy to minimize the financial impact on employees and the communities we serve to the best extent possible,” DuBois said.

At Salem College in North Carolina, a private women’s school with about 730 students, reimbursing housing costs for the remainder of the term means a loss of $1 million.

“We are reallocating our resources . . . looking at what we do and saying what can we stop doing in the near term to better support our faculty and students,” said Sandra Doran, Salem’s president.

The college’s accrediting agency recently took Salem off of financial probation. Doran hopes the financial discipline and fundraising that turned the school around will help soften the blow of the pandemic.

“The work of the last two years in terms of examining our finances has really positioned us well,” Doran said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at everything again with a new lens of covid-19.”

Ithaca College, a private school in central New York with about 6,000 students, is still weighing whether to issue refunds against the school’s other fiscal needs.

“We want to support our students and our families the greatest we can,” Ithaca President Shirley M. Collado said. But she said she must also keep in mind the “long-term health of this institution and what we’re delivering.”

In the short term, the fiscal outlook for colleges everywhere is “quite foggy and very dramatic,” she said. “It’s complicated, to say the least.”

Laura Meckler contributed to this report.

“We decided to refund this because we thought that was simply the ethical thing to do.”
President Ray Cross, of the University of Wisconsin system, on the estimated $78 million it is paying for refunds of room and board