College Crunch

Dr. Miles Davis, president of Linfield College

The president of Linfield University on the impact of COVID-19 on the higher education sector.

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Higher education is facing many unknowns as the coronavirus pandemic hits institutions’ revenues and drives expenses higher. Small, private regional colleges are particularly under pressure because they are heavily dependent on tuition revenue. As the economy enters a severe recession, it is unclear how many students will be able to afford to enroll in or return to school.   

In this interview, conducted at the end of May, Miles Davis, president of Linfield University, discusses how his small undergraduate school in McMinnville will navigate these uncertain financial times and why online-only classes are not an option for most of his institution’s students.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has the pandemic affected your institution financially?

It is unusual for higher education to receive the double whammy that it has received this year. That double whammy is not only an impact on revenue; there has also been an increase in expenditures. Linfield had to shut down halfway through the semester. We had to refund the amount of money people had paid to be there for the year. Moving online also increased expenditures, including money we spent to help students who didn’t have laptops.

We will continue to live out our mission. Fortunately, Linfield has benefited from good financial policies that have allowed us to be conservative with our budget. That is not to say we are not feeling the pain. We are.

How are you preparing for the start of the fall term with social-distancing protocols in place?

We will do shifts or spread out the classes. We will also engage our cleaning staff to sanitize the rooms. Common places where students used to gather will not be open.

We are looking at altering our academic calendar, because there is concern about what happens in the flu season if [COVID-19] comes back. The issue is not students being here — the issue is students going back and forth. Maybe it is an option that we start [the fall semester] early and finish early, as opposed to worrying about people carrying the virus back and forth.

Would you introduce all-online classes like other universities have announced?  

Fully online education is not appropriate for whom we are trying to serve. A significant percentage of our students are part of the new majority: They are first-generation students, people of color, women — people who have often been excluded from the economic mainstream. All you do is increase isolation when you require 18-year-olds to do all their classes online.

We have launched a Master of Nursing program, which is online; it makes sense for practicing nurses who want to continue their jobs. But our primary student bases, the 18- to 20-year-olds, want to be here on campus.

We may be the only place where they have a room to themselves; it may be the only place where they get three meals a day; we may be the only place where they have a secure internet connection. A number of families can’t afford internet. I have a student in Alaska who is trying to do his online classes on his cell phone with a data plan that is inadequate to address that.

There are all sorts of socioeconomic assumptions that go into an online experience. We have people right now who are competing for kitchen-counter space with their younger siblings to get their work done. While there may be some who can benefit from an online education, we provide — from a social-service agency perspective — more than just a classroom experience.

What are your expectations for how enrollment will be affected by the pandemic?

I suspect a lot of institutions like ours will be either bust or boom. One of the things that is interesting is that students have discovered being at home 24/7 with your parents isn’t exactly a vacation. They want to come to institutions like Linfield to be part of things.

But this is assuming they can continue and that their parents haven’t been laid off. I project our enrollment may be down from our peak last year. However, I also suspect our enrollment will be better than what it was three years ago.

Are you making adjustments to your tuition because of the economic downturn?

A number of institutions are discounting tuition. Our plan is to work with families depending on their situations. Part of the challenge higher education has in this country is the value proposition. We have been very conservative with our expenses. We haven’t engaged in wild building plans or brought on a bunch of people with exorbitant salaries. There is not a plan to lower price, because we have to cover expenses.

Do you plan to make any cutbacks to help with your budget?

No. We run pretty lean. We have made cuts over the past few years. Last year there was a voluntary separation agreement for faculty. Two years before that there were cuts to staff. You cannot cut down to the bone. At this time, we are not projecting budget cuts. We need faculty and staff and people in administration beyond the immediate pandemic because this too will pass.

Are there any programs you expect to do well in terms of enrollment?

Our nursing program as well as our Master of Science program have taken off like gangbusters. Already our nursing program is full. At the undergraduate level, our classes in biology and chemistry are oversubscribed. One of the things the pandemic has brought to Linfield is the reemergence in the need for science. Nationwide there is a greater conversation about the need to study science better.

What is the future for small regional colleges like yours struggling to survive in a highly competitive market for students?

I think small regional colleges will become even more important. Regional colleges will have to determine their value proposition. What is it that students get from coming to this institution? How do institutions collaborate to achieve economies of scale that make the educational experience wonderful without stretching budgets?

For example, there was a change in Title IX laws [legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding]. In the past, everyone might have had their Title IX officer and done their own training. The [Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges & Universities], which is the 15 private colleges and schools in Oregon, is saying, “Let’s get together, pull in the expert and share in the expense of that, thereby reducing the cost of complying with federally mandated guidelines.”

A lot of college expenses are related to reporting requirements that we all have to do. We can maybe engage in agreements in which we share resources. This is a time for higher education to think differently beyond the individual institution so we can leverage each other’s strengths, as opposed to everyone doing everything by themselves.

Does this extend to sharing academic programs?

Yes. Linfield doesn’t have an engineering program. I have received pressure since being here to start an engineering program. But that makes no sense to me, because less than 15 miles away is George Fox University, which has a good engineering program. We work with them — our students can study science at Linfield, which can easily translate into an experience at George Fox.

Our students also translate easily into MBA programs at George Fox. We do not need to start everything ourselves because it is expensive. We have agreements with community colleges to make it easier for their students to come to Linfield.

What advice would you give to other college presidents facing the type of budget constraints that you have faced as a smaller regional college?

All of us have to be aware of what it is we are charging students for and make tough decisions. What makes that education worth it? College presidents have to look at what value they are bringing to the lives of students, then try to determine a price tag on that. They also have to be clear about expenses that can be shared collaboratively instead of individually — how can economies of scale be achieved at smaller institutions like ours?

Do you expect more mergers among higher education institutions?

As someone who comes from a venture capital and business background, I know that mergers aren’t all that they are cut out to be and can be expensive. But mergers will happen. I expect there will be closures. For those that survive, there will be more collaboration.

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