COVID economics hitting community colleges

The Eastern Wyoming College Board of Trustees hosts its first meeting virtually Tuesday from an almost-empty board room and private residences of members and staff around eastern Wyoming.

TORRINGTON – Eastern Wyoming College – and community colleges around the state – are feeling the economic pinch of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
President Lesley Travers on Tuesday told the Board of Trustees, meeting virtually from around the region, an anticipated windfall from the state may not appear. Travers told the board in March that plans were in the works at the state level to provide an additional $3.5 million to the state’s community colleges. EWC’s share would have been about $500,000 in additional funding, part of a one-time $5 million distribution to the colleges that was included in the state budget at the time.
Now, due to the economic impacts across the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, Travers said Tuesday that money may not be coming.
“I heard this morning the $3.5 million the community colleges were given, $500,000 to each college, I heard this morning they might take it back,” she said. “That was pretty disturbing.”
Travers based her belief the money wouldn’t be coming on meetings with Gov. Mark Gordon’s staff and a report that said the financial situation “isn’t pretty for the state,” she told trustees. “I’m not going to count any of those chickens until they’re in the bank, I guess.”
A significant portion of a projected $9 million deficit faced this week by the state’s community colleges is due to closures mandated by Gordon, Travers said. That necessitated reimbursing students for housing costs and food plans they’d paid for, anticipating a full school year.
About $3.5 million could be coming back to the community colleges, in part through student grant funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in March, she said. Additional institutional funds are also anticipated by the end of the month, Travers said.
“We’ll get some of the money back,” she said. “We’ll see some of that, but it’s hard to say.
“The longer we stay closed, the more difficult it is for our enrollment,” she said. “We have no idea what our fall semester is going to look like at this point.”
Once the smallest community college in the state system, Eastern Wyoming College last year increased enrollment sufficiently to move up in the rankings. Because completion numbers also increased, the college received about $93,000 more in regular funding last year.
“But it’s hard to say how this is going to affect us,” Travers said. “It’s depressing.”
That enrollment increases combined with an increases in tuition and student fees meant the college has consistently received more money from the state than last year, Kwin Wilkes, vice president of administrative services, told the board during his regular monthly report. As of the end of March, the college had received almost $3.9 million in tuition and fees, a 21% increase over a year ago.
The college also received some $8.8 million for its state appropriation for the 2020 fiscal year, a 9% increase over last year. But that bottom line will be impacted as various college departments process prorated housing and food service refunds for students no long using those services due to the shutdown, Wilkes said.
“We are at the back end of the first round of refunds,” Wilkes told the board. “We’re really close to having those go to the final process and get the money back to the students. We will see the real effects of those refunds in the next board meeting.”
The college could also see some money based on donations of personal protective equipment that wasn’t being used after in-person nursing classes were cancelled when campuses in Torrington and Douglas shut down classes last month. The Wyoming Department of Justice is planning to reimburse agencies that donated PPE to the state’s medical community for use during the pandemic, Travers said.
“We can apply for some assistance for that,” she said. “The good news is they want to replenish that, so we’ll have an adequate supply (for nursing students) when school starts again.
“We’re looking at some projects together as community colleges,” Travers said. “One of the things that will happen is we’ll see more workforce development dollars – they’re going to want to try to get the economy back up.”

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