(EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next year, Idaho Education News will provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of the challenges facing higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s our latest installment in this project.)
Boise State University’s $240 million annual budget really comes down to two big variables.
Students in classrooms.
And fans in grandstands.
If you’re not a professional number cruncher, just watch those two things.
Or take it from Mark Heil, who is actually a professional number cruncher. Since the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, forcing the state’s colleges and universities to close their campuses, Boise State’s chief financial officer has paid especially close attention to enrollment and athletics.
Idaho’s largest university faces a financial reckoning that couldn’t have been imagined a year ago. After a round of furloughs in the spring, additional furloughs, job losses and operational cuts are on the table. That’s because the sure things — robust enrollment growth and a packed football stadium — just aren’t sure things anymore.
There’s nothing unique about Boise State’s enrollment angst. Many colleges and universities — large and small, public and private — have spent the last several months bracing for what the pandemic could do to fall enrollment. Predictions of a catastrophic loss, in the 15 to 20 percent range, became commonplace.
That doomsday scenario doesn’t appear to be unfolding anywhere in Idaho’s higher education system. And while the official numbers won’t come out until later in October, Boise State President Marlene Tromp and Heil have said a slight enrollment increase is possible.
Slightly higher would be a big win, especially when it’s weighed against the expectations. And there’s really no way to overstate the added importance of enrollment at Boise State.
For years, Boise State has grown in stride with the Treasure Valley. In October 2019, fall enrollment exceeded 26,000, marking a 19 percent increase over just five years. A sharp enrollment decrease would force the university to pivot from managing growth to weathering a contraction.
On top of that, Boise State’s budget is even more dependent on enrollment dollars. In 2019-20, Boise State received 54 percent of its appropriation from student tuition and fees, and 46 percent from state tax collections. (The University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College all derived at least half of their money from a combination of state tax dollars and proceeds from endowment lands.)
When everything shakes out, Heil expects Boise State’s tuition and fee revenue to be flat. Out-of-state enrollment has increased, as students have chosen Boise State over home-state schools offering only online instruction. But that hasn’t been too big a revenue windfall, he said. Most of these out-of-state students are enrolling under the Western Undergraduate Exchange, which caps tuition at 150 percent of the in-state rate.
Then there’s the matter of room and board — and “dedensification,” to use a wonky word that has gotten a lot of use during the pandemic. Like many colleges and universities, Boise State isn’t filling residence halls to capacity, a $700,000 budget hit.
Then there’s the question of spring enrollment. Do students come back after an autumn of uncertainty? One factor could be what happens in the next seven weeks, and whether Boise State can continue with face-to-face learning before wrapping up the fall semester online in December, as planned.
“We’re just trying to keep hanging on, make it until Thanksgiving,” Heil said.
Boise State puts about $5 million of university money into the $45 million athletics budget — and in good years, the program more or less breaks even.
But that’s going to be next to impossible, even though football season is a go again for fall.
In September, with the season on hold, Tromp said the athletics department could be in a $25 million to $30 million revenue hole. Since then, the Mountain West Conference agreed to an abbreviated season, beginning on Oct. 24. But the revenue gap could be more or less the same, Heil said.
Boise State’s TV revenue will essentially cover travel costs for away games. But under current Central District Health department guidelines, Boise State will have to play home games in an empty Albertsons Stadium — and according to the Idaho Statesman, Boise State plans to adhere to the guidelines. So as long as health officials are restricting gatherings of more than 50 people, that means empty stands, vacant skyboxes and closed concession stands.
And, potentially, a long process of rebuilding from a $25 million to $30 million shortfall. “It will take several years to get there, that’s for sure,” Heil said.
It’s complicated — except when it isn’t
Of course, other factors have left their indelible marks on the Boise State budget.
- The university had to write off $15.5 million in spring and summer revenues, from campus events and performances at ExtraMile Arena and the Velma V. Morrison Center for the Performing Arts.
- It cost $7.9 million to get the campus ready for fall semester — such as retrofitting old classrooms for online courses, and converting ExtraMile Arena and the Morrison Center into makeshift, socially distanced lecture halls.
- State budget cuts and holdbacks come to $9.6 million.
- Boise State and its students received about $14.8 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, including another $1.6 million last week. The money will help cover the short-term budget crisis: costs stemming from coronavirus.
A CPA, Heil joined Boise State after working at Micron Technology, logging 3 million miles while working on 39 overseas acquisitions. He says nothing in his experience prepared him for the daily uncertainties of the past seven months. “It’s really been a challenge for all of us to try to make good decisions in the heat of battle.”
It’s all complicated. But in a way, it really isn’t.
Boise State’s narrative of choice is a story of growth. An enrollment explosion, and a steady stream of capital projects to support it. A perennially successful football program that has elevated Boise State’s national profile.
Enrollment growth and athletic growth. Cornerstones turned question marks.
Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.