As the University of Nebraska prepares for an estimated $43 million in cuts expected over the next three years, the university system's budget will remain relatively flat.
The NU Board of Regents on Friday approved trimming 0.2% from the university's state-aided budget for 2020-21, funded through tuition payments and state appropriations, as it anticipates losses in both revenue sources.
Questions about the safety of students returning to campus amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continue to linger, leaving some colleges and universities across the country to predict enrollment could plummet by as much as 15%.
NU is estimating a 10% drop in the number of international students attending classes at its campuses in Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney this year. Because those students typically pay higher tuition costs, their absence will be felt more on the university's balance sheet.
Furthermore, when the Legislature reconvenes on July 20, lawmakers will likely revise the state budget to align with lower-than-expected tax receipts, meaning NU could lose nearly 4% of the $610 million initially appropriated to it for the coming year.
"There's no question this is a challenging period," President Ted Carter told regents during a board meeting conducted via Zoom. "We will be one of the state university systems across the nation that will get this right."
Wrapping up his first six months as NU's top administrator, Carter told the board his budget met the fiscal needs of the present created by the coronavirus while also laying the groundwork for the university's future.
While his budget places a freeze on faculty and staff salaries this year, his plan is to build in 4.5% pay increases over the next biennium, and use $20 million for strategic investments centered on student success, faculty compensation, diversity and inclusion initiatives and facility repair.
Achieving those goals will come with further belt-tightening at the university, however, even if the Legislature provides what Carter called a "modest" 2% increase in appropriations in each year of the next two-year budget cycle.
According to a budget document shared during Friday's meeting, NU would need to enact $15.5 million in cuts in 2021-22 (a 1.6% decrease), and $25.8 million in cuts for 2022-23 (2.6%).
As part of its plan to manage those cuts, which will begin to work their way through the shared-governance structures on each campus, the board also authorized Carter to implement furloughs, reduce the hours of non-faculty employees and reduce pay "under circumstances when significant financial constraints are present."
The former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy said action taken by NU during the height of the pandemic could help provide a boost to enrollment figures, particularly from in-state students.
In April, Carter announced the Nebraska Promise initiative, which would provide full-tuition compensation for in-state students from median-income households. He's also signaled his intention to freeze tuition for in-state students during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years and cut the cost of online courses.
Those strategies have worked, Carter said, as NU has seen its applications from Nebraska students rise by 24% since April and 9% over the prior year to more than 14,800, marking the highest number of applications from in-state students since 2017.
Omaha Regent Howard Hawks, who will leave the board at the end of the year, said he was optimistic about NU's future despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. But he cautioned regents and administrators to not read too much into the application numbers, saying they could create a false sense of security.
"When we finally see (students) on campus, we'll get the true numbers," Hawks said.
There is some indication that the higher number of applications is yielding more incoming students at NU's flagship campus, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said Friday. Applications are up 2.7% from last year to 20,516 — at least from in-state and out-of-state domestic students.
The number of Nebraska students who have gone beyond filling out an application and indicated a commitment to attending UNL is up 3% over the same day last year, or about 100 additional students, while commitments from out-of-state students are up 2.3%, or nearly 30.
The number of in-state students transferring from other colleges or universities is up 5.9% over last year, to 28, according to a UNL spokeswoman, while the number of out-of-state transfer students has risen by 16, an increase of 11.9% from last year.
At the same time, the number of international students who have taken similar steps to enroll at UNL is down. First-year international student commitments have declined by 66, a drop of more than 40% compared to this time last year, while transfers are down 36%, or 49, from 2019.
UNL and other campuses won't know the true impact COVID-19 had on their enrollment until late August or early September, when each campus records its census.
Still, regents said they were encouraged by the steps taken so far to mitigate the economic harm done to NU and to look ahead to the future.
Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus, the board chair, said he believes the budget will allow NU to emerge from the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn in a strong position.
"We are taking action; we are taking risk," he said. "Every decision that we're making protects the institution with a focus on being really, really relevant, not just trying to figure out if we can survive."
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