US colleges mull permanent travel budget cuts after Covid

Remote meetings and recruitment appear to have yielded big savings, but long-term model not yet clear

June 17, 2021
Warsaw, Poland -17032020 Airlines Coronavirus, LOT Polish Airlines Boeing 787's grounded at Warsaw chopin Airport due to the global pandemic
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US colleges and universities are counting substantial budgetary savings from cancelled travel during the pandemic and are now considering or taking steps to dramatically limit such spending after Covid.

Both individual campus presidents and professional associations have described staff travel – especially that tied to student recruitment – as having emerged as a leading target of a post-Covid eagerness to trim costs across higher education.

“All institutions I’ve spoken to are reconsidering travel and other expenses,” said Jim Hundrieser, the vice-president for consulting services at the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

“This is indeed something we’ve heard anecdotally around the profession,” said David Hawkins, the chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Such reports serve as a sample of possible enduring effects from the pandemic, even as US higher education generally anticipates or hopes for a return to largely normal operations in this coming autumn semester.

US universities have offered nationwide estimates of pandemic-related losses nearing $200 billion (£140 billion), with federal emergency aid covering only a fraction of that amount.

The president of Amherst College, Biddy Martin, told a recent roundtable of her state’s private institutions that savings from cancelled official travel were the key factor in her institution faring better budgetarily than expected.

For reasons of both cost and the environment, Dr Martin told her Massachusetts colleagues, “we’re hoping that one thing that will change is that there will be less travel”.

Maud Mandel, the president of Williams College, agreed, and put even greater emphasis after the event on the goal of environmental sustainability. “Meaningful reductions in emissions would have to come from modest reductions across a wide swathe of the college,” Professor Mandel said.

For many universities, travel is a relatively modest share of the budget in most departments, Dr Hundrieser said. The main exception, he said, is admissions, which often has multiple counsellors travelling for weeks at a time.

“The savings accumulated from that type of travel could really add up,” he said.

Bottom-line assessments of the potential savings are complicated, said Jon Boeckenstedt, the vice-provost in charge of enrolment management at Oregon State University. That is because institutions already were expecting dramatically lower student enrolment amid online formats, bringing huge shifts in revenues and spending, during the pandemic, he said.

Yet administrators questioning of the value of reviving travel after the pandemic is real, Mr Boeckenstedt said. “I know colleagues at other institutions have said the same thing,” he said. “And some of them have used the recruitment travel savings to plough into other recruitment efforts – like swag for admitted students, for instance.”

It’s too early, said Tom Green, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, to know whether Covid really means the demise of recruitment travel.

“Most institutions who we have heard from feel hamstrung” over the question, Dr Green said. “They are aching to get back out and connect with high schools, colleges and students in person,” he said, especially as they struggle to rebuild their enrolments after the pandemic.

Mr Boeckenstedt also acknowledged the dilemma. “If it was successful,” he said of the deep cuts in travel spending, “it was only so because it was forced on all of us at the same time in the same way. I’m not sure I’d want to be the one bucking the trend and eliminating travel when everyone else is going back to normal.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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