Fall term looks different this year at College of DuPage

As we head into the final weeks before the fall term begins on Aug. 24, I miss seeing the transformation that takes place on campus during this time.

Last March, when the pandemic forced us to pivot quickly to remote learning, our initial goals were short-term. We needed to minimize this unforeseen disruption to the curriculum and keep our students moving successfully toward course completion.

At that time, no one could have predicted that COVID-19 would continue to impact us as much as it has while we enter a new academic year. However, we now must make hard decisions about the long-term effects of this worldwide health crisis.

The biggest challenge is the unprecedented financial impact. Like many public institutions around the country, the economic downturn is affecting College of DuPage in more ways than one. Diminished support from the state is anticipated as Illinois struggles to meet the demands associated with the pandemic from an already precarious financial position.

For COD, this will mean a greater reliance on taxes and tuition. Enrollment is difficult to predict, even under the best of circumstances. In the past, when a downturn in the economy occurred, community college enrollment across the country typically rose. In general, that previous uptick in enrollment was due to people needing to retrain and return to the workforce with different or additional credentials and skills.

Although we saw a slight increase in our enrollment this summer, fall comes with more variables because of COVID-19 and remote instruction. As we attempt to forecast the rest of 2020 and beyond, I am fortunate to have spent 19 years as the chief financial officer and city treasurer for Aurora. I was there during the Great Recession with the responsibility to assist in navigating the city through the crisis. The mayor, myself and other city administrators weathered that storm through judicious planning.

The same will happen at College of DuPage. COD's financial objectives are to deliver the college's current program offerings and maintain our workforce to the maximum extent possible. Admittedly, it is not easy. While we have a healthy reserve fund, it is important to look at the operating budget first to see where belts can be tightened. Capital and non-personnel costs (such as those for travel, supplies and construction projects) are being prioritized and then reduced, deferred or eliminated as necessary.

After this, we assess, adjust, show patience and remain diligent in our planning. In the decade following the country's last financial crisis in the late 2000s, more than 300 institutions of higher education shut their doors. While several schools have already announced their permanent closure due to COVID-19, including MacMurray College here in Illinois, others are expected to follow. This is very unfortunate and we are saddened by these losses to the educational landscape.

We must keep level heads moving forward. Smart financial management will enable us to maintain COD's expansive programming over the long term.

Looking ahead at enrollment, we know that some students are considering a gap year and deferring their education. A number of students are waiting until they can be physically on campus and receive regular in-person instruction. Other students may be wary of being together in classrooms at schools where in-person instruction is being offered.

Prospective students are still making decisions about college even now. My advice to those who are considering a gap year is to think again. Even one year off can impact future earning potential, as your career will start later than expected. Also, it is easier to become sidetracked, which could further delay college completion.

College of DuPage is an affordable way to receive a high-quality education. Prospective students still have time to apply and register for classes. The tuition at COD is well below that of all known public and private four-year institutions in the region. Moreover, our tuition rate falls in the bottom 30% (least expensive) of all community colleges in Illinois. Get started on general education requirements now while taking the time to carefully plan next steps. See for more information.

The pandemic will pass. An educated workforce will still be needed. In the end, College of DuPage will emerge from this crisis with a clearer picture of the future and an even stronger mission to help our students succeed.

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