Dear Mercy College Faculty and Staff,
After the tumult of the spring and the summer-long exercise of working remotely for most of Mercy’s faculty and staff, a new fall term begins in a little more than a month. As you know, Mercy will be offering classes both in traditional, face-to-face formats and remotely. Some of our peer institutions, mostly on the wealthier side, have chosen to conduct all classes remotely for the fall term. You may have wondered why Mercy isn’t taking this seemingly easier route. Why go to the trouble of masks and social distancing, with all their associated complexities, when we could simply continue working and studying mostly from home?
The answer to this question is primarily that a majority of our students seem to prefer a semester with at least some opportunities for studying face to face on one of our campuses. Additionally, we have reason to believe that remaining fully online would jeopardize the potential for success of many of the students Mercy serves.
Early on, as we began planning for the fall, we asked students what they preferred for the coming academic year. Here are the results. Thirty-three percent wanted only online courses in the fall; 25% wanted no online courses; and 42% wanted some combination of online and face-to-face classes. About 20% of continuing students responded to the survey.
These student preferences are coupled with our belief that access to at least some face-to-face classroom experience for Mercy students is an issue of equity. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have greater adverse effects on low income students such as those Mercy predominantly serves than it does on wealthier students, and the adverse effects seem to include the effects of exclusively online learning. Here’s an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on this subject: “Low-Income Students Are Disproportionately Hurt by the Pandemic. Here’s a Glimpse of the Toll.” There is also some evidence that low-income students are less successful in the fully remote environment we were forced to adopt last spring. And so, providing some face to face alternative for students looking for that—assuming we have taken adequate safety precautions for the whole community—aligns with Mercy’s mission. This conclusion is consistent with comments New York Department of Education Chancellor Betty A. Rosa released this week along with guidance for New York colleges and universities on reopening for the 2020-21 academic year:
As we developed this guidance, we were mindful that COVID-19 has had a particularly harmful effect on people of color and those that are economically disadvantaged – in terms of health, employment, and their ability to receive the supports and resources necessary for a successful college experience. As colleges shifted to off-campus learning models, many students from low-income and rural communities did not have access to the internet, technology, or the supports they need to meaningfully participate in remote learning. This kind of unequal access to resources only serves to strengthen my resolve, and the Regents’ resolve, to ensure educational equity for all students.
The decision of whether to remain completely online for the fall would also have significant impact on the college’s overall financial situation. Unlike public institutions such as public elementary and secondary schools and public colleges and universities, Mercy receives no significant financial support directly from the state. Our financial health relies overwhelmingly on whether students choose to attend Mercy. Let’s focus for a moment on the 25% of continuing students who didn’t want any online courses. We had to ask ourselves how many of these students might go elsewhere if Mercy only offered remote instruction in the fall. And, of course, there is no obvious answer. Suppose we lose some significant portion of new and continuing students who are looking for an alternative to a fully online environment. The pandemic has already caused us to lose roughly 7% of the enrollment we might otherwise project. Suppose that number is closer to the 25% of our continuing students who declared they didn’t want to take any online courses.
Here’s the secret about colleges and enrollment: it’s possible to survive or even flourish at any number of different enrollment sizes. But, the key to doing so is to make sure a college spends consistent with its size. So, for example, because of COVID-19, Mercy expects to be about 7% smaller this coming fall than it was last fall. As a consequence, we have had to arrange to spend roughly 7% less than we spent last fall. Imagine that we lost roughly 25% of our enrollment instead of 7%. This would be quite traumatic in the short term, even though a college with 7,500 students can eventually function roughly as well as one with 10,000 students (such as Mercy had last fall). How does a college with 25% less students manage? Well, here’s what makes a sudden loss of significant enrollment traumatic. The college generally must hire roughly a quarter less people than it previously did, and it must arrange to spend a quarter less on electricity and security and maintenance and copy paper, etc. (Sometimes colleges such as Mercy can avoid reducing faculty and staff by reducing compensation instead, but larger enrollment declines generally require more than this kind of reduction).
The long and the short is this: if Mercy chose to teach only online for the fall and lost any significant portion of its students, it would be forced to reduce jobs as well. That’s just the way college budgets work.
In any event, our plan for the fall is to offer face to face experiences for freshmen and others who don’t want a purely online semester or whose disciplines can’t be taught purely online, while taking appropriate health precautions, including making appropriate accommodations for those who would be at special risk in coming to campus. To learn more, visit our dedicated OnCampus Plus webpage here. Circumstances may change once the semester starts, and it’s possible we’ll all be working and studying remotely again as in the spring for some or all of the coming academic year. We’re communicating with state and local authorities who will help to guide us should we have to make adjustments. In the end, my hope is that we’ll have the right number of faculty and staff to serve our students in the various ways in which they seek to be instructed and served in the coming semester.
I wonder often myself what the fall semester at Mercy’s three campuses will look like. Unless something unforeseen happens, I expect to be there along with all our other faculty and staff, even though I’ll turn 65 in October and am three years out from quintuple bypass surgery. I’ll wear a mask, wash my hands regularly, and walk in the right direction.
Here’s thanking all of you in advance, whether you teach or serve remotely or whether you do so face to face. It will take all of us this fall, in many different ways, to keep Mercy’s motto alive in these challenging times: inserviendo consumere (“to be consumed in service”).