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Universities feeling significant impacts due to COVID-19

UTEP dorm campus (credit: KFOX14/CBS4)
UTEP dorm campus (credit: KFOX14/CBS4)
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Universities in the Borderland are feeling the financial impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is unlike anything that has happened before,” NMSU President John Floros said.

College campuses are left almost completely empty during a time students are preparing to graduate.

“We have plans, but we didn’t plan for this deep of a pandemic,” said Mark McGurk, Vice President for Business Affairs at UTEP.

UTEP has over 25,000 students. The NMSU campus has over 14,000. Both are feeling the impacts from this pandemic, now having to reimburse students for unused services like housing, meal plans and parking.

McGurk explains how much money the university has already given back to its students.

“As of April 21, we had 548 students who are living in university housing get reimbursed to a total of $598,692.1,725 students have been reimbursed for parking permits that they relinquished and turned in for total of $111,711. And then we’ve had 12 students reimbursed for unused meal plans totaling $4,617.All told, the university has refunded $715,000 to students,” McGurk said.

It’s worse for NMSU. President John Floros says millions will have to be given back to students.

“The total amount we expect this to be for our dormitories is roughly about under 2 millions dollars. In terms of meal refunds, we expect that to be roughly a little less than one million dollars. By the time you add some parking-related refunds or fees that were not going to apply for this year, we are looking at 3 to 3 and a half million dollars total,” Floros said.

Currently NMSU has about 750 students still living in their dorms. UTEP has less than 90.

“Some students had nowhere to go. An example would be is if they were international, they may not have been able to get home,”McGurk said.

"What we have done is put every student in a separate room and we are monitoring the situation very closely. The meal plans continue so our food is delivered to them or they can go and take out in other restaurants so we’re taking care of our students as best as we can at this point," Floros said.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, was passed by Congress and signed in to law on March 27. It will provide funds to higher education during this pandemic.

“We’re going to get a total of 24 million dollars. Half of it going to the students and half of it essentially coming to the university to offset our losses,” McGurk said.

"There are two tranches of funds. One essentially the Department of Education is in control of this and we filed our paperwork in order to be able to receive the funding. We’re going to act as a pass-through essentially for the first half of those funds. $12.4 million is available from the CARES Act for students or to basically to provide to students directly," McGurk said. "The other half of that is to offset some of the deficits we have created eventually because of the lack of the ability to continue operations as normal."

The problem McGurk says UTEP is facing is not receiving enough guidance.

"We have not received sufficient guidance and the example I would give you is that if we disperse those funds to students and we basically gave it to everybody and then the federal government came back and said 'Oh no the rules were not for you to give those funds to the students in that manner you need to pay us back' then that money will not be very helpful to the university. It would help the students but it sure wouldn’t help the university because we’d have to repay it," McGurk said. "It’s not that we don't want to disperse funds. We're being very careful to make sure that we do it in a manner that is consistent with what the guidance from the federal government."

NMSU is planning to receive around 14 million dollars from the CARES Act.

“At least 7 million or more is going to go directly to the students. It’s going to pass through the university, but it’s going to go to the students for them to really use right away,” Floros said. “The other 6 or 7 million dollars will stay within the university, and part of it is what we’re going to use toward some of those expenses that we didn’t anticipate.”

Both schools will be receiving more money from the government than they’re losing currently. The problem they both face, not knowing what will happen next.

“I can always say with confidence we could use more,” McGurk said.

“We have so many expenses and so many other issues to resolve that whatever money the federal government is going to give us, my fear is that it’s not going to be enough to keep us whole,” Floros said.

A fear shared by students in a time of so much uncertainty.

“Experiencing this now because of the circumstances, I’m like, I don’t want it, take it back,” said Alexis Dominguez, a junior at UTEP.

“Our generation had to go through this, so we will have these memories and tell our grandkids one day we couldn’t go to class,” said Danna Melchor, a student at UTEP.

Memories they hope remain far from a new normal.

“I used to love seeing my friends every day just walking to class,” Melchor said. “I miss seeing the faces and seeing my teachers I miss the class interaction. It’s just way different now having to do everything over FaceTime and Zoom and all those blackboard applications.”

We asked both schools if they expect to make budget cuts. They both said it depends on how much money they receive in state appropriates and they won’t know that until the economy gets going again.

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"We have to plan for what’s going to happen in the future and we’re in the process of doing that planning right now. We don’t have any answers to provide other than we’re looking at our financial situation and our budgets and we’re looking at our enrollments. The anticipation as an example is that the state of Texas has experienced a significant downturn in the economy and so a big portion of our funding comes from the state in the form of general revenue and that general revenue comes from sales tax, the majority of it. So if people are not out buying things they’re not paying any sales tax. Then the revenue coming into the state is going to be significantly impacted and that’s a trickle down to the universities," McGurk said. "At this point we’re trying to plan for what the state cut might be in our state appropriation and we use our state appropriations to fund the operations of the university. It pays for everything. And so it would have a significant impact on our operations but all we could do at this point as planned because we don’t know what the future holds."

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