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Coronavirus to cost Montana universities millions in losses, extra costs

Coronavirus to cost Montana universities millions in losses, extra costs

University Hall at the University of Montana

The University of Montana campus

The effects of the coronavirus could cost the Montana University System's campuses about $18 million total before the end of the school year, officials estimated this week.

The bulk of the lost money will come from housing and food plan refunds offered to students living on campus who are able to move out of the dorms for the remainder of spring, the increased cost of online teaching and services, and lost revenue from canceled concerts, conferences and public events hosted on the various campuses.

Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner of budget and planning at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said he estimated up to $14 million would be put toward refunds to students moving off campus early.

Late last week, Commissioner Clay Christian approved campuses to refund students who moved out of dense student housing. The communal living spaces could become a breeding ground for coronavirus if it were to infect someone in the dorms, and the more people who moved out the safer they would be.

University of Montana spokesperson Paula Short said since sending emails to students prompting them to move out if possible and including information about refunds, the number of students who said they would plan to leave skyrocketed.

Trevor said that while campuses could likely weather the lost revenue and extra costs through the end of the school year, the unknowns of how coronavirus will affect the upcoming year and beyond had him more concerned.

He said providing the refunds would be a one-time cost. However, the effects of many potential disruptions caused by coronavirus could later include a drop in tuition revenue, fewer students paying fees that fund things like on-campus gyms and dining halls, and a hit to the state budget.

“If there’s a drop in enrollment in the fall, that would cause stress," Trevor said. "In the short term, the refunds and costs may stress campuses, but they should be able to absorb it. But combined with foreseeable and unforeseeable effects over the long-term, that could cause issues.”

Among one of the unforeseeable effects is how long the coronavirus will be affecting the state economy, and therefore the tax revenue used to fund agencies like the university system. Trevor said that state budget officials felt the state government’s tax revenue was still in good shape, but that could change if the large-scale drop in tourism and other economic activities lasts more than a few months.

UM vice president for operations and finance Paul Lasiter said that while the upcoming year and any effects the virus has on enrollment were too difficult to forecast at this point, the next fiscal year's state contribution to UM's budget was already set in place by the legislature.

Higher education officials across the country were working together, Trevor said, to lobby federal representatives to include provisions for colleges and universities in the stimulus packages being worked through Congress. He said he had been in touch with U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, but he said none of the bills that have been voted on in the Senate included provisions for higher education. He said officials were hoping it could make it into the “third round” of stimulus legislation.

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