Q & A session with President Livingstone regarding the financial implications of COVID-19 on Baylor

President Linda Livingstone assured students that Baylor is sparing no expense in their coronavirus response. Lariat File Photo

By Sarah Pinkerton | Staff Writer

After responding to tough questions regarding Baylor’s COVID-19 response, The Lariat spoke with President Linda Livingstone about the ways that COVID-19 has impacted the university’s finances, budget and potential for a tuition increase past the 4% threshold in coming years.

The Board of Regents approved a $679.9 million operating budget for the 2020-2021 school year last spring, a 2.1% overall decrease from last year’s budget. Budgetary actions including $18.5 million in cost avoidances, $30.3 million in cost reductions and $24.5 million in one-time funding reallocations have also been incorporated.

In light of this, how did the tents, dining services and technology for COVID factor into that and how much did the university spend on those things?

“We knew as we planned through the spring and the summer, began to plan our budget, that we were going to see some significant impacts from COVID and particularly things that we needed to do to ensure the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff as we came back to campus. We don’t really put a price tag on that value of that safety and well-being and so part of that investment was in things like tents and air filter filtration systems and rethinking how we did Dining Services, certainly lots of investment in technology in the classroom. You know, some of those costs are still being experienced by the institution and obviously we don’t know how long we’re going to have to continue to make those investments, so I don’t really have a specific dollar amount to share other than to say that it is certainly in the millions of dollars that we’ve invested in, and as we continue to deal with COVID-19, our primary goal is to continue to protect our academic mission, the student experience that we have. We feel like those investments that we made and the things like tents and so on, have been important investments and ones that are making it possible for us to be here this semester, and that the plan we put in place, both the safety plan and the financial plan, are working well and the way that we had hoped that they would at least up to this point.”

In a Presidential Perspective email sent out on September 3, students were encouraged to seek COVID-19 testing through Baylor, rather than McLennan County, to both protect local citizens and provide critical data for virus tracking on campus.

How much is Baylor spending on testing?

“We knew that we were going to have to supplement the testing that the county could do with the large numbers of students we were bringing back and the level of testing we wanted to do to ensure the safety of the campus was critical. As you say, we’ve done testing in a variety of ways. We obviously had the pre-testing with Everlywell that everybody went through. We’re doing testing through Baylor Health Services, particularly as people have, you know, symptoms or had close contacts, and then we’re also doing the surveillance testing so that we can continue to monitor what’s happening on campus and work to control the virus, so we’re doing extensive testing. We’ve conducted over 26,000 tests since the first of August, and to kind of put that in perspective, McLennan County has done about 50,000 tests county-wide since March when they really first started this. We feel like the testing is critical. If we can do good testing, get ahead of this, know where we have positive cases, do really good contact tracing and then isolating quarantined people quickly, that it will be critical to our ability to keep everybody safe to keep the cases down and, to continue to have a really positive semester. Testing is a critical part. We’ve invested a lot in that and it will continue to be an important part of our strategy.

I don’t have a specific number, and again, it’s an investment we continue to make, and so I don’t have a specific number and obviously each week we’re spending more on that so it’s an ongoing investment that we’re making.”

A 4% tuition increase threshold was first implemented in the 2018-2019 school year, preventing tuition increases from surpassing 4% in coming years. In years prior to that, tuition increased as much as 6.5%.

Will we see a rise in tuition past the 4% barrier within the coming years due to the impact of COVID-19?

“Tuition is set on an annual basis, so we don’t set tuition on a multi-year basis or increases. Each year we make unique decisions about the increase that will be for the following year, and it’s important to understand that the 4% increase that affected this year’s tuition was approved over a year ago is kind of the late summer of 2019, so that decision was made before we even knew that COVID-19 existed. I don’t think it did exist at that point in time. So we actually built our budget and really our enrollment targets, our model for how we were going to do scholarshipping, based on that tuition increase before we ever knew there was going to be an impact from COVID. Then of course, we have seen the significant impact of, that’s a very good question, about some of the investments we’ve had to make to manage COVID. Then I would say when we built our budget for this year, and made adjustments to that based on what we saw happening with COVID, we really built a prudent budget. We wanted to do everything we could to, as we say, ensure a safe and healthy experience for our students that continue to provide a really high-quality education, a great student experience. I think the way we built our budget and the way that’s working, we are doing that. We’ve got a good financial plan, it’s working well. We have not set tuition for next year as yet. That will be something that the board will be doing coming up in the next several months.

Certainly, the impact of COVID will be something that’s taken into consideration with that. Certainly what we’re spending on COVID, but even the impact of COVID on people’s economic situation and financial situation. You know, the board is very attentive to our cost of attendance and the impact that has on students and their families, particularly at a time like this. So I certainly know that as we have those conversations with the board in the coming months, they will certainly balance all of that with also, you know, our aspirations to be an elite Christian research university. These are complex decisions to make that a lot of factors weigh into but our board does them very thoughtfully with great care and concern for the impact it has on students and their families.

We’re actually waiting a little longer this year to set tuition than we do some years because we know there’s a little more uncertainty in the environment, and so we want to have as much information as we can have before we set that tuition right.”

The cost avoidances, cost reductions and revenue reallocations have impacted the operating budget of athletics by 8.8%.

What do you think the financial impact of losing fans at sporting events will be on the university?

“The one that obviously has the most significant influence is football. That’s certainly a primary driver from a financial perspective in our athletic career programs, particularly in the fall. As you know, we had to postpone the Louisiana Tech game because of some of the impact of Hurricane Laura, so it’s a very fluid situation. We won’t know the full impact, positive or negative, until we get further into the season. I think it’s important to understand that the large majority of our athletics budget doesn’t come from game ticket sales, it’s certainly important to us, but it comes from broadcast revenues that come through the TV contracts that the Big 12 conference has. It’s important that we play games, that they’re able to be seen on TV, so that the conference fulfills their agreements with the TV arrangement. You know, I would also say that, much like the rest of the university, as we built our budget for this year, our athletics department did some very significant budget adjustments and took actions back in May, knowing that this could be a challenging year and knowing that there was going to be a lot of uncertainty over how many games we could play and whether all of those games would get to be played once we had a schedule determined. They decreased their operating budget by 8.8% back in May. We’ll continue to monitor the situation, as we are across the institution, to ensure that those budget adjustments we made still make sense given the circumstances. But, again it’s a very fluid circumstance with athletics as we kind of go into this football season.”

On the Baylor coronavirus information website, the Frequently Asked Questions tab states that less than 30% of courses are being taught online, while the rest are being held in person.

Is there any specific downside to allowing any student to take an all-online schedule?

“You know before school started, as we went through the summer, we did a lot of listening to students and their families about what they were looking for in scheduling. We actually gave students the opportunity, a several week period of time where students could choose a fully online schedule and I think we accommodate almost all of those, if not all of those, prior to the start of the semester. Of course, once the semester begins, it becomes much, much more difficult to adjust schedules particularly deeper into the semester that we go. I think we did give students that choice and that flexibility to make decisions about that as we started this semester. But then I would also say we’ve invested very heavily in classroom technology and professional development of faculty so that, you know, regardless or whether they’re in online classes or hybrid or face-to-face, they’re going to have a rich learning experience. I also think it’s important, because I know sometimes students want to do online classes because they’re concerned and nervous about the virus and the impact it can have, but we know that we don’t have any cases of the virus being transmitted in the classroom. Most of the cases we’ve seen have been from off-campus or from social settings and then we certainly are not aware of any kind of Baylor-related hospitalization. Being face-to-face in the classroom, given the social distancing and masking policies that we have in place, is actually very safe and so I think students should certainly feel very comfortable in their classrooms. I think we’ve got a pretty good model that was developed based on kind of student preference and request, along with that of faculty with the kind of balance that we have right now between the different kinds of course delivery methods.”