Like most colleges, the twin crises of the pandemic and the economic downturn have blindsided Fairfield University in Connecticut.
After sending students home for the semester, the university is accelerating existing plans to move more courses online this spring and next fall, costing millions of dollars. President Mark Nemec said the private Jesuit university is not running a deficit, but it does owe more than $10 million in room and board refunds for this semester. Its $375 million endowment is suffering steep losses as the stock market tanks.
So last week, Fairfield launched a fundraising campaign to cover costs associated with the pandemic. The pitch included an online video featuring images of students walking across a crowded campus, working in labs and playing volleyball. The goal is to support students’ financial aid, mental health services, remote learning and spiritual guidance.
“Our ask is about our future, like any philanthropic ask,” Nemec told WGBH News. “Despite the current challenges, we are very bullish about our long-term future.”
In the near term, New England colleges like Fairfield face bleak budgets and tough academic and staffing decisions that won’t come without consequences to the region’s economy. Even selective, wealthy colleges are struggling, imposing hiring and salary freezes. Some schools, including Boston University, Brown and Northeastern, are also fighting class-action lawsuits from students seeking refunds for tuition and fees.
Others, including Simmons, Hampshire and Harvard, which is projecting a $750 million budget shortfall, are trying to turn this disaster into an opportunity, expanding their online courses since it’s unclear how many students won’t show up on their campuses in the fall because of COVID-19. Nemec said he's cautiously optimistic Fairfield will be able to reopen its campus this fall.
But by some estimates, colleges nationwide could lose up to 20 percent of on-campus students.
“There’s a lot of concern about potential declines in enrollment, in addition to just the financial challenge of the refunds that had to be made,” said Brian Flahaven, who oversees lobbying with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, whose members include development officers.
Flahaven says colleges worry how much donors are able to give now and in the future. “Whenever the market goes down, charitable giving tends to go down, as well,” he said.
Many colleges are hoping to raise unrestricted money to support low-income and underrepresented students, who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. At least one, Wellesley College, is even making appeals to cover its operating costs.
In a series of emails to alumnae, Wellesley says it’s staring down a $5 million to $6 million deficit and needs their financial help because of the cost of migrating teaching online and losing income from room and board refunds. The college is bleeding other revenue from cancelling summer programs.
Flahaven says it’s highly unusual for a college with a $2 billion endowment like Wellesley's to make such a pitch.
“It’s very difficult for institutions — and really for any charitable organization — just to raise money to keep the lights on for just general operations,” he said.
That’s why philanthropic advisors say colleges should be extremely sensitive about what they're asking for and how, considering a lot of alumni and donors are hurting financially right now, too.
“If we think about how institutions traditionally use their fundraising, especially those that are tied to campaigns, they raise for unrestricted causes and those are the ones that alumni really like to give to, like internships and financial aid,” she said.
In a good or bad economy, Parrot points out colleges always struggle to find the right time to ask alumni who may still be paying off their student debt for money.
“But we have to remember that institutions still have to ask,” Parrot said. “We see this quite often with a number of institutions, that nobody ever asks [alumni] for money and therefore, they don’t give.”
In this unchartered territory, colleges hoping to gain support during the pandemic are likely to ask — and be more creative about it.
WGBH News intern Mackenzie Farkus contributed to this report.