UWM Grapples With 'Catastrophic' Financial Hit As Leaders Plan For Fall

May 19, 2020

The first semester of college under COVID-19 is over, and now schools have the difficult task of planning for the future. College leaders are deciding whether the benefits of holding in-person classes outweigh the risks of coronavirus exposure.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone says he will announce plans for the fall semester in June. Beyond the question of reopening campus, UWM is facing a projected $50 million to $100 million deficit by the end of the next school year.

>>Latest WUWM & NPR Coronavirus Coverage

In an interview with WUWM, Mone talked about the challenges ahead.

“The financial model that supports higher education actually broke a long time ago,” Mone said. But now, the hardship is magnified by state cuts to public universities and other impacts of the coronavirus. “When you have public institutions that are receiving cuts almost immediately, and you have major questions about the enrollment declines – I think there’s no other way to describe it than catastrophic.”

"When you have public institutions that are receiving cuts almost immediately, I think there's no other way to describe it than catastrophic."

UWM has implemented employee furloughs to cut costs in the short-term, but that move doesn’t come close to meeting projected revenue loss.

The financial prospects are dire across the UW System, which led System President Ray Cross to draw up a controversial proposal for future cost savings. The blueprint would require the state’s 11 comprehensive universities (all four-year campuses except Milwaukee and Madison) to identify programs that could be cut to save money. The bottom line, Cross says, is that colleges can’t continue to be “all things to all people.”

>>University Of Wisconsin Campuses Ordered To Prioritize Courses, Prepare For Layoffs

“I think there’s some truth to what President Cross is talking about, that the sustainability question is facing all of higher education right now. There are more universities than there are students to go to them,” Mone said. “We do need to have additional revenue sources, we do need to look at alternative audiences.”

Cross' proposal needs approval from the Board of Regents, which is meeting next in June. And, Cross is retiring soon, so it remains to be seen whether his successor will agree with the blueprint. 

Even though UWM is not one of the comprehensive universities, Mone says the school could be forced to downsize programs in the future. 

“We’re looking right now, what are our strongest programs? Where are our enrollment projections likely to be?” Mone said. “The good news is we’ve got some reserves so we don’t have to make hard decisions immediately about programmatic areas.”

Mone says making those more painful decisions will depend a lot on when and to what degree UWM is able to reopen its campuses. UWM administrators are considering multiple scenarios, including keeping classes entirely online.

“My hunch is we’ll have an awful lot online, and we’re gonna try to as safely as possible bring people back for some face-to-face activities,” Mone said. “It’s fraught with so many unknowns right now, it’s hard to even say.”

"My hunch is we'll have an awful lot online, and we're gonna try to as safely as possible bring people back for some face-to-face activities."

Mone says UWM is exploring safety protocols that might be used if some face-to-face classes resume, including COVID-19 testing or routine temperature checks. Mone says the university may also need to use a public information campaign to encourage students to behave in a way that protects themselves and others.

“We can do all these great things on campus, but what if people go to Brady Street and enjoy bar activity and life that’s not as socially distant and then they come back to campus?” Mone said. “How do you enforce, how do you monitor? There’s going to be a whole a new mindset.”

Another major unknown is whether students will postpone college plans because of coronavirus risks and uncertainty.

>>COVID-19 Is Making College Planning More Difficult For High School Seniors

Right now, Mone says enrollment numbers for fall 2020 are down 7.6%. Enrollment is strong in some areas, including at the Waukesha and Washington County two-year branch campuses, in online programs, and for master's and doctoral students. But UWM freshmen and transfer student enrollment has dropped compared to previous years.

Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.

_