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Local colleges holding their collective breath as fall approaches

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The University of Delaware’s South Green | Photo c/o University of Delaware

After the spring semester ended with empty campuses, three Delaware residential colleges are planning to welcome students back with a combination of online and in-person classes. But the big question remains: How will the hybrid model hit higher education’s finances?

“The break point of students choosing their colleges comes in July. Everyone is holding their breath right now,” said Steve Newton, director of media relations at Delaware State University. “We won’t see anything solid about students choosing to go elsewhere or stay in-state until then.”

Delaware State University, University of Delaware and Goldey-Beacom College are planning on downsizing large classes and teaching online come fall. But in light of a new surge of COVID-19 cases across the country, all are preparing to go completely online if needed. All three colleges are planning to end in-person classes by Thanksgiving.

Wilmington University’s clock tower | Photo by Paul Patton Wilmington University™

DSU President Dr. Tony Allen held back on formally announcing the university’s plan this week, and Wilmington University announced it was going online completely for the fall semester. Delaware Technical Community College will announce its plan on Aug. 1.

In the spring, colleges spent money to take classes online. Goldey-Beacom purchased software and is training staff on them this summer, while DSU is ramping up plans to get either a Macbook or iPad in the hands of first-time students.

Others like UD have frozen tuition rates to ease the financial burden, but are expecting room fees to draw in less revenue than previous years, university spokeswoman Andrea Boyle Tippett said. The college has already instituted pay cuts and laying off 23% of its staff as cost-cutting measures.

UD did see a mild drop in its yield rate — the percentage of students choosing to enroll in the college after offered admission. For the 2019 school year, the university held a 24% yield rate.

“We expect an outstanding freshman class,” Boyle Tippett added. “Final numbers for the semester are not calculated until after the semester’s drop/add [period] ends, and won’t be available until late September.”

DSU and Goldey-Beacom are in the same situation when it comes to enrollment predictions. Right now, DSU’s outlook is on track with last year’s numbers with more than 1,100 incoming freshmen and 250 transfers, but Newton said time will tell if those numbers will hold true.

But whether Delaware students are pausing their dreams of an out-of-state school to stay closer to home for low in-state tuition rates is still unknown. At Goldey-Beacom, there is a greater percentage of applications coming from within Delaware than previous years, said Janine Sorbello, the college’s director of external affairs.

“Whether they are choosing us over out-of-state schools, we don’t know,” she said.

But she pointed to Goldey-Beacom’s undergraduate tuition of $11,700 and typical scholarships dropping it at $6,000 maximum, the private college is “confident that we are the ‘somewhere less expensive’ option that students may be switching to in these uncertain times.”

With residential colleges, reopening means more than just classes, it’s also about welcoming students to live in dorms, possibly raising the chances of an outbreak if coronavirus does not fade before the fall.

UD hired more custodial staff for cleaning, while DSU is looking at costs associated with deep-cleaning and considering dorm layouts. Both are reserving space on campus for quarantining students as needed.

“It’s the same challenges everyone is facing: We have the same size rooms and that doesn’t change with social distancing,” Newton said. “And with fewer students, you obviously will see less money come in.”

Delaware State University campus | Photo c/o DSU

DSU is typically at 94% occupancy and he fully expects some students to need help finding housing if the college comes back, although the specifics are not set, Newton said.

Meanwhile, at Goldey-Beacom, the five-story Franta Hall will be opening in the fall, keeping to single or double occupancy in dorm rooms. If the campus has to shut down again, students will be refunded a portion of the room fee. Visitors will also not be allowed in the residence halls, Sorbello said.

“So parties will not be a part of the equation,” she said.

While reducing the density for Goldey-Beacom’s academic activities are easily accomplished, the challenges lie in spaces created with social gatherings in mind, like the dining hall and student life center.

“From New Student Orientation, through the many activities of Welcome Back Weekend, we are challenged to find ways to help students connect, while remaining responsible for protecting their health,” she said.

The future of college classes also looks like professors and students wearing masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). DSU will be mandating face coverings on campus, and Goldey-Beacom is expecting everyone to come with their own masks. Both DSU and UD have been buying PPEs, and DSU is looking at testing options.

Both DSU and UD have been buying up PPEs still to this day, but costs have not been finalized. DSU is also looking into options for testing and contact tracing, although nothing is official at this point.

“We won’t know the costs until we know how many students come back, but we have been applying for federal and state funding for it,” Newton said. “It’s more expensive than what universities are used to, but we will learn to calculate it as the cost of doing business in this new normal if we’re to reopen.”


By Katie Tabeling

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