Georgia’s smaller colleges fight through pandemic’s financial impact

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Small, private colleges managed through the fall semester by sharing resources, ideas to better teach classes remotely and new revenue-generating strategies. Administrators at these schools are hopeful for similar results in 2021, . but some financial analysts and higher education experts say the upcoming year could be more difficult. The pandemic cut deeply into the budgets of many of these schools through enrollment declines, . having fewer or no students living on campus and not being able to rent out space for events. Additionally, administrators are worried about the costs of testing protocols for student-athletes to participate in spring sports and fall sports that were postponed to the spring. There are about 125 private colleges and universities in Georgia, federal statistics show, . more than two times the total in the state’s public university and technical college systems

Reed Tucker enrolled at Berry College this year because, in part, he liked the campus environment. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, he’s made friends and found things to do there.

Tucker and friends, for example, grabbed lawn chairs to watch movies outside their dorms. He goes hiking. His outlook on being on campus is to be cautious, but not fearful.

“You still need to have a life and be safe about it,” said Tucker, 18, who grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, about a two-hour drive from Berry, located in northwest Georgia.

Small, private colleges like Berry managed through the fall semester by sharing resources, ideas to better teach classes remotely and new revenue-generating strategies. Many that opened their doors to students had to reassure students like Tucker that they would be safe. Administrators at these schools are hopeful for similar results in 2021, but some financial analysts and higher education experts say the upcoming year could be more difficult.

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Because of COVID-19, only staff and faculty were allowed access to Berry College in Rome, Ga., Friday, April 3, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Because of COVID-19, only staff and faculty were allowed access to Berry College in Rome, Ga., Friday, April 3, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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Because of COVID-19, only staff and faculty were allowed access to Berry College in Rome, Ga., Friday, April 3, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Enrollment declined slightly, by about 36,000 undergraduate students, this fall nationwide in private, nonprofit, four-year schools, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported earlier this month. Much of the decline was due to fewer new students on campus, the center found. Enrollment among first-year students at nonprofit, private schools declined by more than 10% this fall.

Moody’s, the prominent credit rating agency, released a report earlier this month predicting revenues for the nation’s colleges will decline by up to 10% over the next year due to the pandemic.

“Smaller private and public universities that rely heavily on student charges, especially those that generate a high proportion of their revenue from auxiliary operations such as room and board, will feel the most significant operational and fiscal impact,” the report said.

Additionally, administrators are worried about the costs of testing protocols for student-athletes to participate in spring sports and fall sports that were postponed to the spring. Many students attend these schools to play sports.

Colleges ended their fall semesters by Thanksgiving, before the ongoing increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Many experts believe the numbers will remain high when the schools reopen, starting next month. Several Atlanta-area colleges and universities that were closed to students during the fall plan to open their doors, in limited numbers, for the spring.

Agnes Scott College President Lee Zak, who survived a bout with COVID-19, said her team decided to allow some students on campus for the spring semester “because our students needed it and wanted it.”

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There are about 125 private colleges and universities in Georgia, federal statistics show, more than two times the total in the state’s public university and technical college systems. Most are located in small cities and towns across the state like Rome, where Berry is located. About 115,000 students — more than twice the University of Georgia’s enrollment — attend these schools. State leaders and businesses are hoping those students will graduate and join Georgia’s workforce.

Leaders of many of those schools met online during the summer, through the Georgia Independent Colleges Association, to plan for the fall. They shared information about how to do virtual labs and teach art courses online. Agnes Scott’s Zak said more students took online courses at other Georgia colleges and universities through a cross-registration program.

The pandemic cut deeply into the budgets of many of these schools through enrollment declines, having fewer or no students living on campus and not being able to rent out space for events. Some got financial help from atypical sources.

Eleven private colleges and universities in Georgia received federal Paycheck Protection Program funds, created to help schools and businesses through the pandemic. Atlanta’s historically Black colleges and universities received record-high gifts from donors in response to nationwide protests and complaints about systemic racism in the country.

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While several of the schools in metro Atlanta decided to hold all classes online, many in other parts of the state opened their dorms. Linda Buchanan, president of Andrew College, located near Albany, said its enrollment increased to 301 students, the highest total in five years. Agnes Scott and Berry also reported higher enrollments.

Point University, though, saw an 18% decline in enrollment this year. Fewer first-year and transfer students enrolled there this fall, said Dean Collins, the university’s president.

The university, located in West Point, had about 2,400 students last school year. About one-half of its students are non-white, and university leaders believe many of them came from families adversely affected financially or health-wise by the pandemic. The Kia plant there, an economic lifeline for the community, suspended operations twice during the first few months of the pandemic. Many new high school graduates in the area decided to sit out the 2020-21 school year, Collins believes.

“There were many who chose to take a gap year. ‘We’re just not going to go anywhere this year and we’ll start next year,’ " Collins said.

Point focused on a new program they had been working on before the pandemic that offers online courses for students working in local fast-food restaurants, a big business in these parts, who pay for some of the tuition costs. Twelve restaurants are working directly with the university. Fifteen students are participating.

“This is a different way to create a pool of applicants,” Collins said.

College leaders joke about how long it takes them to make decisions. The pandemic has forced their hands. One change created by the pandemic, online courses, is here to stay, several leaders said.

“To me, it’s not a huge shift, but an acceleration of new ideas,” said Jenna Colvin, president of the Georgia Independent Colleges Association.

Administrators are talking about finding more ways to collaborate.

“We’re going to learn a lot from this time period,” Buchanan said.

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