EWU facing large economic challenges during COVID-19 crisis

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Photo by: Aaron Malmoe

The "Sacajawea The 'Bird Woman'" statue, under glass in Showalter Hall, was presented to Cheney State Normal School, a previous name used by Eastern, by the class of 1916.

By Aaron Hutchinson, Reporter

Last spring, EWU’s campus resembled a boomtown. Groups of students milled in the campus mall. Fraternities, sororities and activity groups of all kinds pitched themselves to interested students. Construction crews seemed to work non-stop putting up the new addition to the science building. The PUB was finally fully open for students to enjoy.

This spring, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the campus resembles a ghost town. 

The campus mall is deserted, buildings are locked up and activities (if they are still happening) are relegated to Zoom rooms and Facebook groups. The science building sits unfinished; the site emptied of all but the heavy machinery.

The PUB, once a place for students to congregate and recreate, has become a place where the approximately 200 students left on campus grab their essentials and leave immediately.

Washington’s “Stay, home, Stay healthy” order causing EWU shifting to online courses and the resulting exodus of students has put a strain on university finances. EWU, already facing a $3.6 million budget shortfall before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, is in perhaps its most precarious financial position since the 2009 recession.

Some of the economic pain will be immediate and is mostly a result of EWU shifting all classes to online modality, according to Mary Voves, vice president for Business and Finance.

“We are estimating a $7 million loss of revenue in [Housing and Dining] for the spring quarter,” said Voves.

Housing and Dining, which are self-funded, often earn a small profit for the university. This year, with limited numbers of students on campus, there will only be massive losses, said Voves.

To offset the losses, EWU has laid-off 15 employees in Housing, Dining and the bookstore, as well as dismissing all community advisors and cutting between 250 and 275 student positions in Dining.

Photo by Tanner Streicher
EWU dining services offers many on campus jobs for students.

More concerning for EWU may be the long-term impacts. How deep the economic devastation of COVID-19 will run is not yet known, but the university is preparing for the worst. Voves’ department projects that the university will lose between $4 million and $7 million of tuition revenue in Fiscal Year 2021. This decline is tied to enrollment which is projected to drop by 6%-11% from the fall of FY20.

 EWU was already attempting to overcome falling revenues before the pandemic outbreak by merging its seven colleges into four. Every unit in the institution had already cut its budget by 3%. 

Adding to EWU’s financial problems are dire warnings from the state that reductions in funding are coming.

“[W]e have received guidance from Olympia to prepare for very deep budget reductions based on the economic impact of COVID,” said Voves.

The university is planning on reductions of 5%-30%, which amounts to anywhere from $3 million to $20 million in lost revenue. These cuts are the result of the state shifting unprecedented amounts of resources to healthcare and hospitals in order to combat COVID-19.

Voves stressed that none of these projections were permanent and numbers will shift and change as the situation does.

“Things are changing so rapidly that that information could always change,” said Voves.

The last time EWU faced such drastic reductions in state support was during the 2009 recession, in which the state cut its funding for EWU by almost $60 million between 2009 and 2013.

Mckenzie Ford for The Easterner
EWU’s normally bustling campus is now practically empty.

According to Voves’ unit, several key differences make this crisis potentially much worse. During the 2009 recession, EWU was experiencing growing enrollments and had full control over tuition increases, allowing the school to absorb reductions in funding. But EWU has faced plummeting enrollment in recent years and tuition increases have been capped at 2.4% by the state since 2017. 

Additionally, Voves noted that the university was able to forecast and plan for cuts in state funding, something that may not be possible during the current climate.

Voves cited factors like unpredictable duration, unprecedented unemployment and impacts on all university revenues that make this crisis unique. 

EWU has applied for stimulus aid from the federal government, which could add up to approximately $5 million. While the money would help, it won’t be enough to keep EWU out of trouble.

“It’s a one-time infusion of cash and doesn’t address long term financial challenges,” said Voves. “EWU’s monthly payroll alone is roughly $12 million.”

While the way forward isn’t clear, Voves wants students to know that the administration is working hard to find solutions and will be transparent and informative to students and faculty.

“When we get guidance from the state the President will be sharing that with the campus community,” said Voves. “And I will be presenting a number of budget overviews to the campus.”