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Student Mental Health, Institutional Finances Top of Mind for University Presidents

When asked about the most pressing issue on their campuses, college and university presidents in a recent survey deemed the mental health of students their top concern (cited by 53 percent of respondents). That was followed by long-term financial viability (43 percent), mental health of faculty and staff (42 percent), enrollment numbers for the spring (39 percent) and sustaining an online learning environment (30 percent).

Those results come out of the latest Pulse Point survey from the American Council on Education (ACE). The organization polled 295 presidents about their concerns and fall reopening plans, as well as their institution's fall enrollment and financial health.

More than half of respondents (55 percent) described their institution's primary mode of instruction for fall as "predominantly online, with some in-person instruction." Thirty-two percent said their institution was "predominantly in-person, with some online instruction"; 10 percent were fully online; and just 2 percent were exclusively in-person. While respondents cited a variety of factors behind the choice of instructional mode, nearly all said they prioritized metrics related to physical health and safety.

The survey also asked what COVID-19 safety measures were in place at respondents' institutions. The most common were: face coverings required on campus (cited by 96 percent of respondents), PPE provided to faculty and staff (88 percent), reduced class sizes for social distancing (87 percent), limitations on faculty and staff travel (83 percent), reduced building capacities (81 percent), limited or reduced capacity at on-campus events (80 percent), PPE provided to students (79 percent) and contact tracing protocols (79 percent).

Despite those precautions, many institutions have taken an enrollment hit this fall. Fifty-five percent of overall survey respondents said their institution's fall enrollment has decreased compared to last year. In particular, presidents at public two-year institutions (79 percent) were the most likely to report an enrollment decrease, followed by presidents at public four-year institutions (52 percent) and presidents at private four-year institutions (48 percent), the survey report noted. The main reasons behind the decline: drops in international student enrollment, shifting from in-person instruction to remote teaching and learning, individual financial hardships, increased familial responsibilities, and health concerns related to COVID-19, according to respondents.

On the flip side, 22 percent of presidents reported an increase in enrollment for the fall. The most common explanations referenced by respondents: the use of strategic enrollment management tools, increasing the availability of student financial aid, discounting tuition and fees for the fall, the expansion of online class offerings, and the institution's ability to serve unique student populations.

When it comes to the pandemic's financial impact on institutions, presidents reported a variety of challenges. The majority of respondents cited increases in expenses such as technology, cleaning and maintenance, student financial aid, support services and instruction, while at the same time noting decreases in revenues from special programs, auxiliaries, room and board, endowment earnings and gifts. Hiring and salary freezes, renegotiated contracts, employee layoffs and furloughs, and early retirement incentives were all in play as cost-cutting measures.

The full report is available on the ACE site.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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