Kentucky Universities See COVID-19 Impacts to Enrollment

KENTUCKY — College campuses have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and face budget shortfalls because of COVID-19. There have been furloughs and pay cuts, as the University of Kentucky (UK) announced just Thursday, 1,700 employees going to a temporary “no pay” status beginning next year.

UK and the University of Louisville (UofL) list enrollment uncertainty as part of the reason for budget crisis; although it’s too soon to tell if fall semester enrollment will decline, UK is projecting it will and planning for it. UofL has lost money on summer courses, offering fewer than usual and charging students less.  

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a $70 million budget deficit for UK, $39 million for UofL. 
  • Universities point to enrollment as part of the cause for the shortfall, not ruling out a potential decrease in enrollment this fall although it’s too soon to tell what will happen for certain.
  • Summer class enrollment is up by 0.5% so far at UK, 5.3% at UofL. 

College campuses are mostly quiet as much learning has moved online. 

“We know that our students want a traditional learning experience. That’s why they come to UK. We want to have that. I’m on campus one day a week and it’s just very different. It’s quiet,” UK Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Christine Harper says. 

Much of the fall semester is uncertain, as prospective students and their families wait to see how things will look due to COVID-19. 

“I mean, I had a discussion with a mom yesterday: ‘am I going to go away if that school’s gonna move to not be what I thought it was gonna be in the fall?'” says UofL Executive Director of Admissions Jenny Sawyer. 

Universities have been announcing things like cuts to staffing, pay, and retirement benefits this week. On the list of explanation for falling short in funding, is enrollment: a projected decrease by UK and some money lost at UofL because of changes made to online courses this summer. 

“We made a decision to charge for Kentucky residents, our regular face-to-face rate which is a little less expensive so that no student who had planned to take classes would have to pay more,” Sawyer says. 

Summer enrollment has increased so far by 332 students, up 5.3% compared to last year at UofL. For UK, there’s a 0.5% increase overall. For graduate students, it’s increased by 3%.

New students are the big question mark, as high school graduation requirements have changed as well. 

“I think that actually they probably have had more challenges, and if they make it through this there’s that determination and grit that they’re gonna have. If you look at what they’re having to deal with in terms of something stopping immediately and taking a new form, right, whether non-traditional learning experiences and having to negotiate that and work with teachers having to learn the same thing- work with something that’s new,” Harper says. 

The deadline to commit to attending in the fall usually comes May 1. This year, there’s at least a month extension on that. That’s when the two universities hope to have a clearer picture of how the fall will look.

Sawyer says there’s still value students can get from attending college in a more traditional way in person, outside of online learning, she hopes can soon resume. 

“I think that you know there are a lot of things about face-to-face, a lot of things about activities and the intangible things that students learn outside the classroom,” says Sawyer.