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Marshall University officials say the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't affected the school's financial situation as much as expected.

If you’ve driven by the Marshall University campus and wondered where all the students are, the answer is somewhere else.

At a special meeting of the school’s Board of Governors on Thursday, university officials said the number of students on campus is less than 25% of what it is in a normal year. Freshmen are attending classes in person, but undergraduate upperclassmen are doing their class work online because of COVID-19 precautions.

The board met to approve a spending plan for the second quarter of the fiscal year. In June, the board approved a budget of $113.5 million for the year with the understanding it could be revised later. Last week’s action increased that amount to $117.9 million.

The increase was approved because enrollment had not fallen as much as feared and because employees making more than $50,000 had taken pay cuts.

However, things are not all better. Mark Robinson, Marshall’s chief financial officer, said the auxiliary budget, which funds athletics and other student activities, is down because about 300 students deferred living in the residence halls for the fall semester. They can return to the dorms in the spring, but Robinson said the university expects the current model of online instruction for upperclassmen to continue into spring semester, so it’s likely dorm occupancy will remain low.

To make up for this shortfall, the university is borrowing from its reserves. Some will be used to build the new School of Aviation, and some will balance the Athletic Department’s budget. Both operations are expected to repay the reserve fund.

The 2020-21 school year was filled with uncertainties before it began because of COVID-19. The good news is that things are not as bad as they could have been, but the long term is an unknown.

There are many concerns, such as how long employees will be required to take their pay cuts. A primary concern will be how students react to the transition to online instruction. A large part of the college experience is the face-to-face interaction between teacher and learner. Undoubtedly there are some upperclassmen who have decided to postpone the remainder of their education until they can get back in the classroom. How that number changes when spring semester begins will bear watching.

Nationally, enrollment in higher education is down about 2.5%, according to early numbers compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. As with any such number, it’s not just the average but the distribution that is important. Preliminary data show undergraduate enrollment at public four-year colleges and universities such as Marshall is four-tenths of 1% less than last year, while enrollment at public two-year schools is down 7.5%

Undoubtedly Marshall and other colleges and universities have a tough year ahead of them financially. Alumni, current students, prospective students and their families have the right to know what is happening in the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic and what happens in the financial offices.

Officials at Marshall and other public schools have an obligation to be responsible with the use of public money and also to be responsible with the flow of information about what is happening.

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