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Kansas City's Small Colleges And Universities Say Their Size Could Turn Out To Be An Advantage In The Pandemic

William Jewell College will reopen in the fall after training students, faculty and staff on safety protocols during a pandemic. The college is offering single dorms to students for no additional fees.
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William Jewell College
William Jewell College will reopen in the fall after training students, faculty and staff on safety protocols during a pandemic. The college is offering single dorms to students for no additional fees.

Smaller schools think they could be an attractive option this fall for students wanting to save money and avoid overcrowded classrooms.

As many colleges and universities across the country make cuts to offset COVID-19 losses, some of Kansas City’s smaller schools say their size is turning out to be an advantage in the pandemic.

Fall enrollment at William Jewell College is actually up slightly from this time last year, President Elizabeth MacLeod Walls told Steve Kraske on KCUR’s Up To Date Monday.

“We’re a small community. We know all of our students personally. We know all of their stories,” MacLeod Walls said. “We’ve decided we can reopen in the fall safely.”

Kansas City-based MRIGlobal is reviewing Jewell’s safety protocols and plans to train faculty, staff and students on best practices in August. The college is also partnering with Liberty Health and the Clay County Health Department. MacLeod Walls said students will be able to request a single room if they aren’t comfortable sharing a dorm for no additional charge.

Meanwhile, Monsignor Stuart Swetland isn’t worried about having 25 or 30 students in a classroom in the fall because classes at his school, Kansas City Kansas’ Donnelly College, are already smaller than that.

“We have small class sizes because pedagogically it’s best for our students, but we may even make them smaller if necessary next year,” Swetland said.

Swetland said in-person instruction is better for Donnelly students, many of whom are low-income and the first in their family to go to college. But he said there will probably need to be a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning to accommodate professors who may be in high-risk categories for COVID-19.

To help students who’ve been impacted financially by the coronavirus, Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences froze tuition for next year. Trustees had been planning to increase tuition by 3%.

KCU had to suspend clinic rotations in March, but Provost Edward O’Connor said students are still getting valuable experience in online classrooms.

“So we’ve been prepared for two years to update our curricular experiences with virtual and augmented technology,” O’Connor said. “This gives students the opportunity to practice, lowers the risk of future medical errors and protects patients.”

But no matter how good online instruction gets, college officials expect some students will be priced out of four-year colleges due to the pandemic. Beyond that, others may be reluctant to pay for in-person instruction knowing that COVID-19 could disrupt the fall semester as well.

Metropolitan Community Colleges Chancellor Kimberly Beatty expects some of those students to enroll at one of MCC’s five campuses.

“A lot of the conversations have focused on whether students are going to return to the four-year schools. I think that may be an opportunity (for community colleges),” Beatty said. “We are a local, affordable option for students who ... still have general education courses to take.”

Both Missouri and Kansas community colleges offer a core curriculum that will transfer to four-year universities.

“I’m just really optimistic that people are going to see that value and the return on that value and say, ‘You know what, I can take my summer classes, I can take my fall classes (at MCC) until I feel comfortable enough going back to school,’” Beatty said.

Not all of the region’s small colleges will come out of COVID-19 unscathed, particularly public institutions that rely on state appropriations. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, state spending on education had already declined by an inflation-adjusted 29% since the Great Recession.

Missouri Western University in St. Joseph had a $3 million shortfall going into the pandemic. After state lawmakers withheld another $1.9 million, the university laid off 31 instructors and gave 20 others one-year contracts that won’t be renewed.

In a statement, President Matt Wilson said eliminating 20 under-enrolled majors and concentrations will free up $5 million annually to be spent on programs that serve more students.

“We appreciate that the faculty impacted are quality professors who have dedicated their time and talents to Missouri Western,” Wilson said. “I am genuinely grateful for their dedication to our students and university. We only wish there were other options to get us through these challenging times.”

Meanwhile, college administrators aren’t the only ones trying to balance the budget. For some low-income students, COVID-19 will put college out of reach.

MacLeod Walls, the Jewell president, said now is the time to make sure low-income students still have access to the same opportunities as their middle- and high-income peers.

“What we’re facing is potentially a threat to our talent pool as a nation. When these students can’t go to college for financial reasons, they very often don’t ever go to college,” she said.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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