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The COVID-19 impact on higher education

Due to major revenue losses and increased costs, chancellor expects to request $120 million more from Legislature

Photo by Deb Gau The Mustang statue welcomes visitors as they drive onto the Southwest Minnesota State University campus. Chancellor Devinder Malhotra says Minnesota State colleges and universities will be facing economic difficulties heading into the spring semester

MARSHALL — Minnesota state colleges and universities have had to make significant changes to make campuses and classrooms safer during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while many of those efforts have been successful, colleges and universities are facing financial challenges like a loss of revenue and increased costs.

“We have our work cut out for us in that regard over the next two years,” said Devinder Malhotra, Minnesota State chancellor.

As a result, “We will be requesting an additional $120 million” in the Minnesota State system’s biennial budget, Malhotra said. The request includes $75 million to help stabilize colleges and universities, plus $45 million geared toward helping students.

Malhotra spoke to the Independent by phone this week, and talked about how COVID-19 impacted colleges this fall. In many ways, the Minnesota State system had a successful semester, he said. Minnesota State colleges and universities served a total of 163,000 students, and restructured classrooms to help avoid the spread of COVID-19.

“We were very cognizant that we were in the middle of a pandemic,” Malhotra said. Colleges offered hybrid and online learning opportunities to cut down on the number of people in classrooms at the same time. As Minnesota saw a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases in the fall, several colleges and universities moved classes completely online.

The Minnesota State system has made it through the fall without major COVID outbreaks, in a large part thanks to the faculty and staff of colleges and universities, Malhotra said.

“I’m thrilled and very proud of the work they have done in very difficult circumstances,” he said.

But the pandemic — and the economic downturn that went with it — has affected both students and colleges, he said. More students are struggling with keeping part-time jobs, as well as with child care needs and mental health needs. Fewer students were staying in residence halls this year, and some colleges and universities saw enrollment decrease this fall. Both those factors meant a loss of revenue for colleges, Malhotra said. At the same time, colleges were faced with increased costs to keep up with the extra cleaning and sanitizing needed around campus.

Malhotra said the additional $120 million Minnesota State will be requesting from the Legislature will help address both the financial impact of the pandemic and equity for students. Most of the additional funding would go to help stabilize colleges and universities. But $45 million would go to help equity and affordability for vulnerable students. Assistance with housing, mental health resources and child care would be examples of ways to help close the gap for low-income and first-generation college students, Malhotra said.

While the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have varied among colleges and universities, Southwest Minnesota State University has seen some of the trends Malhotra discussed, said SMSU President Kumara Jayasuriya. SMSU had increased fall enrollment this year, but it has faced rising costs for supplies and cleaning in classrooms. And this spring, refunds for students who were no longer staying in the residence halls on campus totaled around $600,000, Jayasuriya said.

If Minnesota State’s budget request is granted, “It will definitely help,” both in sustaining colleges and universities and helping students afford college, Jayasuriya said.

But while area Minnesota legislators acknowledged education has been heavily impacted by COVID-19, they said it’s too soon to tell if Minnesota State’s budget request will become a reality.

“It depends on how the February forecast turns out,” said Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent.

Minnesota is facing a projected $1.3 billion deficit for the next biennium, said Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls. And on top of that, there are many groups, businesses and institutions in Minnesota that are struggling with the economic impact of COVID-19. Legislators will have to try and balance all those needs, Dahms and Swedzinski said.

“We want to make sure we spend where it’s most needed and where it’s going to do the most good,” Dahms said.

Swedzinski said tax relief might also be a serious need this session.

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