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Monday, May 17, 2021

College budgets are a balancing act, COVID-19 has added more weight

An unknown return to campus for many students at Western led to the budget of the school taking a big hit

A stack of hundred-dollar bills wrapped in chain and padlocked.
A stack of hundred-dollar bills wrapped in chain and padlocked. Colleges are having to figure out how to adjust their budgets, as money is lost due to COVID-19. // Courtesy of Free Pictures of Money, licensed with CC BY 2.0.

By Lauryn Haywood

Sounds of laughter and chatter once filled the Ridgeway dining hall. Groups of friends grabbed a quick ice-cream cone to-go as they headed to dorms for a late-night snack. Now, the dining hall is a ghost town. 

These are normal activities for a college campus — but they are also a significant source of revenue.

Student costs like room and board, as well as dining services, are prominent portions of many college’s budgets. With fewer students on campus, the budget has shrunk.

Washington state’s Office of Financial Management broke down how these absences are a majority factor in college budget delegation. 

“[Within the COVID-19 pandemic] last spring OFM asked all state agencies and higher education institutions to identify reduction alternatives, in case our revenue situation did not improve and cuts were needed,” the Office of Financial Management said. “However, they were not actual cuts made in the biennial [every two-years] budget. Western comes prepared with requests to the state [for that budget] and the state has decided whether or fill them or not.” 

The planning and proposal of college and state budgets are a big part of the process, but not necessarily the direct outcome of what the budget will look like, the Office of Financial Management said.

“The governor’s proposed 2021 supplemental and 2021-23 biennial budget removed the funding for the 3% salary increase and assumed furlough savings,” the Office of Financial said. 

An increase in state-granted student aid has been present in the last year due to the financial strain that COVID-19 has created. Some examples of these types of aid are the Washington College Grant and Washington State Opportunity Scholarship

Western English professor Bill Lyne, who is also the president of the United Faculty of Western Washington, broke the exact costs for Western Washington University down into three categories. 

“Western has three sources of revenue,” Lyne said. “[The first being] state appropriations, which is money that we get from the state, which is from taxpayers. [Next], there is tuition that students pay. Lastly, there are auxiliaries which are housing and dining fees, the bookstore revenue, parking fees, etc.” 

Aspects that typically included full operation of campus have been drastically impacted, Lyne said.

“When the pandemic hit, two of those three have been affected,” Lynne said. “The auxiliary has been dramatically affected with no one living in the dorms and no one going to the dining halls. [Western] has been losing a lot of money there.”

However, Lyne pointed out that Western students have still been enrolling and returning to school, despite not knowing when the campus will open to full capacity again.

“Enrollment is down by 5% and returning students decreased by 1%, which is still pretty good overall,” Lyne said.

The biggest budget impact is on students currently attending Western, Lyne said. Western administration has had to cut classes in order to keep within the budget. 

“From a faculty perspective, our argument is that cutting too many classes gives students fewer choices and screws up their lives more at exactly the moment when we shouldn’t be doing it,” Lyne said. “We go back and forth with the administration about this, and we feel like we should keep as many classes as we can.”

Lyne urged students to try to utilize the Washington College Grant, which he said he finds a very helpful resource, especially amidst financial strain from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Cocke, Western’s director of University Communications, said via email, Western has a couple of main goals within their operating budget in the near future. 

“WWU’s top operating budget priority is to protect the state’s current investments in Western and access to public higher education, including the Washington College Grant,” Cocke said. “Western is also partnering with the state’s other public four-year comprehensive universities (CWU [Central Washington University], EWU [Eastern Washington University], and [The] Evergreen [State College]) on a joint proposal related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives aimed at improving the access and success of traditionally underserved students in postsecondary education.”

As the three COVID-19 vaccines roll out throughout the country, the budget could potentially be less of a concern when students return to campus. Many things are still up in the air as Western students await to see what the future brings.

Lauryn Haywood is a former reporter for The Front.

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