MASSACHUSETTS COLLEGES AND universities are so far doing relatively well in opening their doors while keeping COVID-19 cases contained – but top education officials warn that their ability to successfully reopen comes at an astronomical price tag. And without an influx of state or federal funding, the ability of some schools to survive may be in peril. 

There are colleges and universities in New England that won’t survive this,” warned University of Massachusetts president Marty Meehan. “We’re trying to make sure at the end of the crisis there are still five UMass campuses, all nationally ranked and successful.” 

Massachusetts Education Secretary Jim Peyser, Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago and representatives of the state’s public and private colleges and universities testified Tuesday before the Legislature’s Committee on High Education during a more than two hour hearing focused how higher education is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One theme that emerged is the high cost of testing and precautionary measures, even as schools are faced with declining revenues due to enrollment declines, the refunding of room and board fees, and uncertain state and federal support. 

Wellesley College president Paula Johnson, representing the Association of Independent College and Universities in Massachusetts, said the “astronomical costs” related to COVID-19 combined with the loss of revenue is unsustainable for many private schools. “We’re in a very difficult position in a very difficult time,” she said. 

One major cost is COVID-19 testing. State guidelines require schools to create plans to test incoming and returning students for COVID-19, particularly if they are living on campus, and to have ongoing surveillance testing for students and staff throughout the semester. While the state has not established standards for how frequently testing must be conducted, Peyser did not rule out establishing minimum standards in the future. “We’re constantly evaluating what our standards are and what minimum requirements should be,” he said. 

Wellesley College president Paula Johnson

So far, between August 15 and September 29, higher education institutions have conducted just over 1 million tests and reported 918 positive cases. The state data is not broken down by school. Meehan said UMass has reported 166 cases across its campuses. Other state universities reported 39 cases, according to the State Universities Council of Presidents. Representatives of the state’s community colleges and private colleges did not mention in their testimony how many cases came from their institutions.  

A group formed to develop guidance on higher education testing, which Johnson leads, recommended testing at-risk populations, like students living on campus, every two to seven days, with a maximum of 12 days between tests for lowerrisk groups.  

But testing is expensive. Many schools are contracting with the Broad Institute to process tests at $25 apiece – a special rate for colleges and universities that is lower than the institute’s typical rate of $35 to $50 and far lower than other commercial labs that can charge up to $150. There are at least 45 private colleges and 14 public colleges using the Broad Institute, including the University of Massachusetts, Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Wellesley, Brandeis, and Northeastern. 

Meehan said UMass will spend $14 million on COVID-19 testing alone this fall. And that is with only between 8 percent and 27 percent of its students back on campus, with the numbers varying by campus. 

Meehan said he is hopeful the cost of testing will go down – especially since the university wants to bring more students back this spring. UMass Amherst is working on building its own lab to process tests in-house. “We’re constantly looking at the most inexpensive way of doing this,” Meehan said. 

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts president James Birge, speaking for the State Universities Council of Presidents, said state universities will spend around $10 million on testing and contact tracing this semester. 

Rep. Jeffrey Roy, House chair of the Higher Education Committee, asked several of the education officials whether schools were considering using wastewater testing, where wastewater from a building’s sewage system is tested to detect if there is an outbreak in that building. Roy suggested this could be a cheaper alternative to testing every individual, since individual testing would only have to be done if COVID-19 is detected in a building. 

While Roy called the Broad Institute a “game changer,” he said he is “not sure how sustainable that is economically.” If the pandemic continues through next fall, Roy said, “How many universities are going to be able to afford this exorbitant amount of individual testing?” 

Birge said while universities are open to looking at wastewater testing, each testing device costs $5,000, so its cost can increase quickly. Johnson said wastewater testing is worth looking into, but with the awareness that it would only catch outbreaks in residence halls. Another method would have to be used to identify the virus in students or staff who are not living on campus. 

Johnson said another method the education testing committee is looking into is pooling, in which several samples are tested at one time, potentially decreasing the cost. 

Johnson said most schools started with the PCR test – the type used by the Broad Institute  because they knew it would be “the most sensitive and specific test,” but her group is continuing to review new technology.  

There are numerous other costs campuses are facing in addition to testing. Birge said state universities last spring refunded $48 million in room and board fees when the dorms closed. Universities are paying for safety supplies from plexiglass shields to facemasks to touchless door openers and new signage.  

Enrollment is also fluctuating, which affects tuition. While enrollment at UMass remained stable this year, enrollment at the state’s community colleges is down on average 13 percent, said Middlesex Community College president James Mabry, speaking for the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges 

University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan testified before state lawmakers in July 2019. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

Johnson was unable to provide enrollment figures at private universities, but she said many students do appear to be taking “gap years” and it is uncertain whether they will return to school. The question is not only one of student interest, she said, but “it’s about the economics of higher education and whether families and whether students can actually afford to come back to school.” 

Johnson said schools are also impacted by declining enrollment from international students. Most first-year international students were unable to get visas. With federal policies that discourage international students, along with general turmoil in the US, Johnson said, “We’re seeing for the first time in memory a decreased interest in international students in coming to the US.” 

Virtually all the campus executives say they need more state and federal money to avoid major cuts.  

Some have already made cuts. UMass, for example, cut $161 million in personnel costs, which included a reduction of 16 percent of the workforce, Meehan said. 

Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, blamed campus executives for “making destructive choices.” “Many rushed layoffs and furloughs, causing unnecessary pain now to prevent speculative pain later,” Page said. 

Page said the MTA is fighting efforts at Springfield Technical Community College to cut seven programs and at Salem State University to downsize faculty and cut some departments. 

Peyser said Gov. Charlie Baker just gave 47 public and private colleges $15 million in federal CARES Act funding to offset COVID-19-related testing and other costs, in addition to $250 million in previously allocated federal funding, half of which is earmarked for student financial aid.