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The cash cost of COVID: A look into OU's finances amid COVID-19

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OU financial losses graphic

OU's financial losses from parking permits, meal plans and housing for the fall 2020 semester.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt daily life across the United States, higher education institutions have been among the most scrutinized and affected bodies nationwide.

Among U.S. colleges, 44 percent are primarily or fully online, with 10 percent of all universities deciding to go entirely virtual to protect the health of their students, faculty and staff. These decisions, however, have significant effects on university finances. 

At the OU Board of Regents’ Oct. 2 meeting, OU President Joseph Harroz highlighted the economic impact the pandemic has had on the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which is projecting a $168.6 million loss in its operating budget after moving online for the fall semester.

Prior to the start of the fall semester, OU projections looked similarly grim should classes be held online only, according to Kesha Keith, OU director of media relations.

“In early August, the university considered the financial impact to the Norman campus should classes be moved fully online prior to the start of the semester,” Keith wrote in an Aug. 27 email. “At that point in time, the projections showed the university would suffer losses well in excess of $150 million. The factors related to the projected shortfall include, but are not limited to, not having a full football season, a possible 20% decrease in enrollment and a lack of housing, meal plans and parking revenues.”

At the Oct. 2 meeting, Harroz said since OU’s dorms are at 86 percent capacity and the campus is still open, the university has avoided the loss of millions and there are no plans for campus-wide furloughs or any departmental layoffs “that he knows of.”

Harroz also said the university’s non-athletic revenue is meeting approximate projections, though some departments may see funding reductions of roughly 2 percent. The OU Athletics Department budgeted for “at least” a $25 million shortfall in the fall semester, though no football games have thus far been canceled.

While Harroz said OU has managed to avoid such drastic losses — and continues to seek ways to reduce costs through university health care changes and other means — data from OU Parking Services and OU Housing and Food shows that substantial revenue has still been lost this semester as students and faculty alike are less inclined to spend time on campus.

Transportation Troubles

Data provided by OU Parking Services Director Kris Glenn and Gary Epperson, a manager in the department, indicates that university revenue from parking passes saw a sharp decline in the fall 2020 semester. 

From July 15, 2019, to Oct. 5, 2019, OU students, faculty and staff had purchased 14,640 parking passes. During the same time span in 2020, that number had fallen off to 10,875 passes.

Commuter passes saw the most steep drop-off among all categories. Up to Oct. 5, 2019, 6,470 commuter parking passes were purchased. After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and into the fall 2020 semester, however, only 4,081 commuter passes had been purchased by the same date. 

As each commuter pass costs $274 — and the price of parking passes has not changed for three consecutive years, according to Glenn — the difference in commuter parking alone has led to a shortfall of approximately $654,586 compared to fall 2019. The price of parking passes falls throughout the semester, however, so only approximate estimates of losses are available with current data.

Many OU faculty and staff have also forgone their parking permits for the 2020-2021 academic year. By Oct. 5, 2019, 4,382 faculty or staff had purchased their parking permits. But by the same date this year, only 3,555 had done so.

According to the OU Parking Services website, each faculty/staff permit costs $311, meaning the drop-off in faculty/staff permit purchases translates to a loss of approximately $257,197 compared to fall 2019.

The only category of parking passes that saw an increase in sales for fall 2020 was the Headington Hall pass, which increased from 246 purchases in fall 2019 to 266 in fall 2020.

The combined revenue loss for only commuter and faculty/staff parking permits is $911,783. When accounting for all types of parking passes, OU Parking Services has lost roughly $1,062,209 from parking pass sales amid the pandemic.

Campus shuttles have also seen a sharp decline in ridership as well, according to Glenn’s data, with the first week of the fall 2020 semester seeing a 61 percent decrease in the number of riders. In the previous fall semester, the average daily number of riders for the first week of classes was 5,172. This year, the daily average was only 2,038.

This decreased ridership comes despite the university expanding CART shuttle routes and increasing the number of buses to facilitate social distancing prior to the beginning of the semester.

Missing Meals

Another major aspect of welcoming students to campus is the money many university housing residents spend on on-campus meal plans. According to data provided by Amy Buchanan, director of marketing and communications for OU Housing and Food Services, several meal plan types saw substantial purchase decreases, but some freshman plans were purchased more this semester.

During the fall 2019 semester, OU students purchased 6,571 meal plans. As of Oct. 5, 2020, however, only 4,766 meal plans of any type have been purchased.

Part of the change is reflected in an overall enrollment decrease at OU’s Norman campus from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to OU Institutional Research and Reporting’s fall 2020 enrollment summary. Enrollment on the campus fell [1.1 percent] from 28,089 in fall 2019 to 27,782 in fall 2020.

Some parents have expressed concern about allowing their students to live on campus amid the pandemic, leading even those that are still enrolled to seek housing elsewhere.

A decline in freshman meal plans — which make up a majority of all plans purchased for both fall 2019 and fall 2020 — has also cost the university. Incoming freshmen purchased 4,171 meal plans in fall 2019, but only 3,690 in fall 2020.

Each regular freshman meal plan costs $2,377 per semester, with the rate remaining the same since the 2019-2020 school year. With 481 fewer freshmen purchasing meal plans this semester, the university lost approximately $1,143,337 in revenue, not accounting for the revenue from other meal plan types apart from standard freshman plans.

When the overall costs of other meal plans are included — including commuter meal plans and “enhanced” freshman plans, which offer more meals or meal points than standard plans — the university has lost approximately $1,963,362 in meal plan revenue compared to fall 2019.

Housing Hesitance

In the fall 2019 semester, 4,009 OU freshmen lived in on-campus housing, according to OU Institutional Research and Reporting. Currently, the cost for students to occupy a standard double room in one of OU’s residential towers for the 2020-2021 academic year is listed as $5,662 per semester on the OU Housing and Food website. 

Applying the standard room rate for the towers as a rough base for the cost of other room types, OU made approximately $22,698,958 from freshmen students living on campus in the fall of 2019. Since OU students are required to live on campus for two semesters, the university made roughly $45,397,916 for the academic year — not accounting for the prorated refunds provided due to the spring 2020 semester being moved fully online after spring break.

Overall, 5,235 students were listed as living on-campus in the fall 2019 semester in data from OU Housing and Food. If the $5,049 average of the listed rates for all OU housing facilities is used (as each housing facility has several different floor plans to choose from, and the data does not indicate which floor plan a resident may live in), then the university made roughly $26,431,515 from housing costs in fall 2019.

According to Harroz, OU’s dorms are at 86 percent capacity for the fall 2020 semester. Data from OU Housing and Food lists 4,455 students currently living in OU housing facilities. Using an approximation from the average of listed OU facility housing rates, the university has made roughly $22,493,295 from housing this semester, down approximately $3,938,220 from the fall of 2019.

Blake Douglas joined the OU Daily news desk in October 2018, and is currently the news managing editor. Previously, Blake has served as an intern reporter, senior news reporter and summer news editor.

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