Collin McNamara had just been elected as the president of student government two days prior when UWSP shifted all its classes to online in early March. Spring break was extended a week, from March 14-29, and following that all classes were to be held virtually. The campus announced a plan to move students off campus later that month.
The switch wasn’t easy at first for McNamara, a political science major from Iola. Online classes proved a challenge compared to their in-person counterparts. McNamara, 20, found it harder to focus on a screen all day, and distractions were rampant. Some days he needed to put his phone in another room to concentrate. On top of that, McNamara was an essential worker, with a job at a grocery store, so while campus was ramping down to protect faculty, students and staff from the Coronavirus, he had to dive right back into it at the grocery store.
But the experience hasn’t changed his outlook on college; rather, he says it’s brought the campus together. “I have witnessed the neighborly attitudes of students helping other students move out, because their family couldn’t come in the middle of the week,” McNamara says, as an example. “When this pandemic started to happen, I knew this could go one of two ways: we would either see the worst of each other, or the best. I would say with very few exceptions we are seeing more of the best when it comes to education.”
It hasn’t deterred enrollment either. After years of enrollment declines causing a crisis at the UW-Stevens Point campus and its Wausau and Marshfield satellite campuses, the numbers are actually up for the first time.
But while the enrollment numbers are up, the financials are looking more dire. UWSP has lost some $7.5 million in lost revenue tracked through to August 2020, according to UWSP interim Chief Financial Officer Christina Rickert. That includes revenue lost from canceled programs and events, student housing and dining refunds.
The pandemic has also cost the university $335,000 so far. Those expenses, Rickert says, include items such as personal protective equipment, student worker income continuation and technology costs to continue online classes. It also includes cleaning and sanitation costs, Ricket says.
UWSP is planning for a potential decrease in state aids in its next budget year, Rickert confirmed to City Pages.
All of that comes with uncertainty — because no one yet knows whether classes at UWSP and its satellite campuses in the fall will be in person, online or some combination thereof. And that uncertainty extends to other campuses in central Wisconsin as well.
Hope on the horizon
Fall enrollment to the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point is on the rise for the first time in a while, according to numbers provided by Marc Young, director of recruitment at the university. New applications are up 46% compared to last fall, Young says. Those actually admitted to the university are up 46%, and those confirming their intent to enroll is up 37%.
That goes for the satellite campuses as well, Young says, though the increases aren’t quite as sharp. UWSP at Marshfield is up 12% in total applications and 15% in total admissions. UWSP at Wausau is up 29% in total applications and 28% in total admission to the university.
Even numbers of students registering for orientation have increased: 48% at UWSP, 25% at Marshfield and 71% at Wausau. That orientation looks quite a bit different today, in light of the Coronavirus, Young says. What was once an eight-hour in person orientation day now is about an hour and 15 minutes, and of course done virtually. The campus now offers virtual campus visits that have been popular and well-used, and even conversations with academic advisors are done virtually.
So why now? Without knowing better, one might think enrollment would be down with so much uncertainty, both in how classes will be conducted in the fall and in the world in general. Although in some cases nationally, students are forgoing entering expensive Ivy League schools in favor of campuses closer to home that are much less expensive, leading to increases at smaller colleges.
Was that happening here? Young doesn’t think so. Data isn’t showing much difference in where students are coming from. Data, by the way, has been the key to UWSP’s turnaround so far, Young explains. “We have been far more strategic and data-driven with our decision making,” Young says. Administration at UWSP has worked to use data to identify students in the region most likely to enroll at UWSP and target those students with its marketing. And “we’ve gotten away from being humble,” Young explains to City Pages. “We’re sharing our student success stories with the public and with prospective students.”
One area that has been a challenge during the pandemic: international recruiting. Recruitment international students, which are a major revenue source for any university because tuition rates for international students are much higher than for the average student, is a challenge right now. With travel restrictions and the possibility of parents being unwilling to send students to a foreign country during a pandemic, that will remain a challenge in the fall.
And what fall will look like still needs to be determined, Young says. UWSP is looking to the UW System for guidance on what format campuses will be following in the fall. But UWSP staff have been working to make sure they can accommodate students no matter where they are, Young says. “We will continue to do our best job and make sure students have the most up to date information so they can make a sound decision,” Young says.
Even college sports have been impacted, though maybe in ways the average person might not consider. The recruiting class for this fall has been largely unaffected, including in numbers of students, and where they’re coming from, says UWSP Athletic Director Brad Duckworth.
It has had a financial impact. With all events canceled, that means a loss in revenue. That loss is particularly felt by the loss of UWSP’s summer sport camps, which bring in a significant amount of revenue for the campus. Volleyball camps, basketball camps and football camps are among the many typically offered each summer.
Recruiting is typically done a year ahead, so the shutdown will affect the 2021-22 recruiting class more. Athletes who were juniors this past athletic year were unable to play their spring sports at a time that is paramount to showcasing themselves for potential schools, Duckworth says; and summer showcases for athletes are questionable as no one knows how soon things will open up. That means a baseball or softball players, for instance, could go nearly two years without playing a meaningful (to recruiting) game, Duckworth says. “Coaches and players will certainly have to get creative to evaluate recruits’ talents and how they may fit within our programs,” Duckworth told City Pages.
As summer starts, practice start dates loom on the horizon. Football practice starts first, on Aug. 12, and Duckworth says he and UWSP administration will be working with organizations such as the NCAA, the WIAC, Portage County’s health department, Marshfield Clinic and others to gauge when — and if — practices can begin in anticipation of the fall season.
Studying medicine during a pandemic
On Friday, instead of a public ceremony, students of the Medical College of Wisconsin stared at a screen. It’s something they were used to since earlier in the year. The school’s first Match Day, in which newly graduated doctors are paired up with their residency, had a Harry Potter theme and teachers dressed as wizard instructors. Students dressed as Harry Potter characters received their assignments from a sorting hat. This year, that was virtual too.
One of the biggest challenges is that students needed to be pulled out of their clinical assignments as Coronavirus swept the nation, and first and second year students not prepping for their residency assignments had to transition to a virtual learning environment, says Medical College Central Wisconsin Campus Dean Lisa Dodson. Of that 80% was easy, but the challenge is how do you teach hands on medical skills when the coronavirus keeps you from being hands on, Dodson says.
That came as the central Wisconsin campus just moved into new digs on the Aspirus campus. Newly unveiled in February, the campus will finally go back into use as students return in limited capacity in June. It helps that the building the college is in is separate from the main Aspirus hospital buildings, and is spacious.
Coronavirus hasn’t had any impact on enrollments yet, but it could in the future. Dodson is expecting that the pandemic might inspire some people into medical fields, especially in areas like nursing or paramedic care. “I do think there is a subset of folks out there who are going to be motivated to pursue a degree based on the heroic actions they’ve seen by health care professionals,” Dodson told City Pages. That might be especially true for public health.
The medical campus has also implemented a 10-module Covid-19 course that medical students will take to learn more about the many facets of the Coronavirus. “We’re using this as an opportunity to beef up our public health training,” Dodson told City Pages.
Northcentral Technical College closed its physical campus on March 20, transitioning as many others did to a virtual learning environment.
NTC has seen a slight decline in summer enrollments, which was expected with the extension of the spring semester, says NTC President Dr. Lori Weyers. Fall enrollments had remained steady but now NTC is seeing an increase in enrollments as the K-12 academic year comes to a close.
The school is seeing an increase in interest toward its Liberal Arts Transfer Degree, Weyers says, in which students can earn an AA or AS degree at NTC and then transfer to any UW campus. It has been a popular option amongst parents not wanting to send their child away to school in light of Covid-19, Weyers says.
What about that new esports team the school started last year? After a couple of weeks off to decide how best to proceed, NTC’s new esports teams continued to practice from home, and have even played tournaments that way, says head coach Jon DeGroot. The school’s League of Legends team even won a tournament hosted by the Milwaukee School of Engineering recently. Esports will go on hold over the summer, but will start back up in fall as planned, DeGroot says.
Looking to the future
The week before spring break was pretty weird, says Will Scheder, a 19-year-old freshman at UWSP. “No one really knew what was happening,” Scheder told City Pages about that time period. He returned halfway through the extended spring break period, and says the empty halls and zero contact allowed with residence hall staff was surreal.
But the transition to online learning wasn’t a big adjustment, and he had the right equipment to make it happen, Scheder says. “I do feel for those who don’t have any electronics or internet. I can’t even imagine how they did it.”
And McNamara says he eventually transitioned into online learning and says with the right resources available, he was able to be successful.
McNamara, in his capacity as student government president, says he would like to see a mixed system when students return in the fall, that takes into account safety of the faculty, students and staff.
Neither Scheder nor McNamara have any plans to change their college trajectory because of coronavirus. “This hasn’t changed my outlook on college, and it hasn’t changed my college experience,” McNamara says. “I am still doing all the things I did before, just in different ways.”