Drop in UD students creates $80 million tuition deficit, forcing deep budget cuts

Jeff Neiburg
Delaware News Journal

The University of Delaware had a target of 4,450 first-year students enrolling for the fall of 2020, an increase of 8% from the fall 2019 enrollment.

Instead, the effects of coronavirus brought a 10% drop year-over-year. The university also saw higher-than-normal attrition in returning students and a drop in transfers and international students. It doled out more in undergraduate financial aid because more students needed help due to the economic downturn.

Of the students that enrolled, a higher percentage are Delaware residents paying less than their out-of-state counterparts.

All of that added more than $80 million to the university's increasing deficit, which could fall between $228 million and $288 million for fiscal year 2021.

Quiet scenes across campus at the University of Delaware as the coronavirus has brought regular life in the state to a halt.

The university last week announced another round of cost-saving measures that will include layoffs, a voluntary retirement program and voluntary staff hour reductions. An unpaid leave program similar to a furlough will also occur.

During a town hall presentation Thursday afternoon, university President Dennis Assanis said the deficit is "directly tied to the pandemic."

And as everything else goes during the coronavirus pandemic, the outlook for the future remains unclear. As of now, 91% of undergraduate courses and 88% of graduate courses are fully online. Fewer than 1,500 students are living on campus. Assanis said students returning to campus on a wider scale this semester is unlikely, but he said the university is looking at increasing campus capacity in the spring to 50%. 

"I do hope and pray that the medical community will find a vaccine," he said. "I do hope spring will see a much more dense campus."

More than 300 students and employees have tested positive for the coronavirus since the fall semester began. More than 90% have been students.

Students are checked in at the Field House — where hand sanitizer and masks are put to use — as the University of Delaware holds student move-in.

Gov. John Carney said this week that a decent chunk of the state's recent uptick has come from young people. He referred specifically to Newark and off-campus parties that have flouted the city of Newark's gathering limits.

Assanis said the focus now was working on the "extended" university community and driving percentages down.

More than 350 people qualify for the school's retirement incentive program. The incentive payment would equal five months of base salary, plus payment for any unused vacation days. Assanis said the incentive would likely not be offered again in 2021. 

There is not a clear timeline on when layoffs and furloughs will happen and who will be affected. It will depend on how many people take the retirement incentive and then how many voluntarily accept a reduction in time. Cuts are likely to come from all over campus.

"We’re all interconnected," Assanis said. "We’re all in this together. But this is the reality we’re facing."

In June, the university projected at least a $168 million gap between revenue and expenses for the current fiscal year. By then, the university had already taken steps, such as salary cuts for administrators, a campuswide salary and hiring freeze, reduced spending and layoffs. 

Those measures saved $86 million — just over half of the projected shortfall. The board of trustees approved withdrawing $82 million from the university endowment to cover the remaining gap this fiscal year. The university has withdrawn $100 million from the endowment overall this calendar year. Assanis said Thursday that it would be "irresponsible" to draw more from the endowment.


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Initial plans for spring 2021 include prioritizing the return to campus of freshmen and seniors. The school wants to "maximize face-to-face experience consistent with safety guidelines" and will continue to blend in-person and online courses. Calendar changes are also being considered.

Sports competition is slated to return in late November and into the spring. Assanis' presentation indicated the shortened seasons will feature bus travel and no overnight stays to save money.

This past spring, the university also faced a $65 million budget shortfall after the coronavirus pandemic decimated university finances nationally. Federal stimulus funds and the costs saved by closing dorms and academic buildings helped shrink that deficit to $50 million, but the university still had to instill cost-saving measures that still remain in place.

Education reporter Natalia Alamdari contributed to this story.

Contact Jeff Neiburg at Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.