COVID-19 Pandemic Hits YSU in Its Wallet

By Amanda Joerndt, Rachel Gobep & Preston Byers

Youngstown State University is looking at possible furloughs and layoffs and is currently on a hiring freeze as a result of the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Rachel Gobep/The Jambar

Youngstown State University is making decisions to reduce personnel costs through possible furloughs and layoffs, and it is assessing its budgets after being financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to YSU President Jim Tressel.

Tressel announced May 5 that he’s taking a 15% pay reduction from his $309,575 annual salary and over 100 additional nonunion personnel will be taking a temporary salary cut between 2% and 10%, depending on their salary. 

This will lead to $700,000 in savings.

The university is currently under a hiring freeze, and Tressel said any exceptions to the freeze will require his approval. 

Health care contributions for nonunion personnel will increase from 15% to 20% in 2021, and 

the university will review divisional budgets and the intercollegiate athletics budgets.

YSU will seek opportunities for restructuring, and all university-sponsored travel has been paused.

Additionally, the sudden shift to online instruction has resulted in increased expenses for the university.

Nearly $10.4 million was given to Youngstown State University through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act given by the U.S. Department of Education. Half of the money will go directly to students. Photo by Kamron Myers/The Jambar

The largest expense is an investment of about $1 million into information technology, according to Neal McNally, the vice president for finance and business operations. This bump in expenses is combined with a dip in revenue due to partial student refunds.

He said a reduction in state funding to universities is possible, and in response to “plummeting state tax receipts,” Gov. Mike DeWine could order budget reductions of up to 20%, which could result in YSU’s funding being trimmed by as much as $8 million.

McNally will convene the Financial Realities group for the university, which is one of five of YSU’s “Take Charge of Our Future” focus groups.

The financial realities group will help navigate “financial challenges and help ensure longer term sustainability of the university,” McNally said during a board of trustees meeting May 1.

The group consists of McNally; Katrena Davidson, controller and co-convener; Rich White, director of planning and construction; Jeff Coldren, chair of the psychology department and member of the Budget Advisory Council; Terri Orlando, budget officer in the Office of Academic Affairs; Mike Hrishenko, director of Information Technology Services; and Danny O’Connell, director of Support Services.

“[The group will] foster a clear understanding of the financial challenges that are facing YSU pre-COVID as well as the new challenges that have prevented themselves,” McNally said.

Additionally, he said the university will consider cutting back on smaller projects and requests first. 

“Suspending building maintenance projects, suspending computer replacement initiatives,” he said. “I’m really anticipating a fruitful discussion with that group moving forward.” 

The city as a whole, not unlike others, will likely struggle for years to come following the pandemic. Albert Sumell, an economics professor at YSU, said there are two ways to view the economic impact of the pandemic in Youngstown.

First, since Youngstown’s economy was relatively weak beforehand, the pandemic may further weaken it. Sumell likened it to “punching somebody while they’re already down.”

The second way, which Sumell was reluctant to call optimistic, is that Youngstown may not be hit as hard as other cities, most notably New York and Los Angeles, because it is not a popular tourist destination.

“We’re less dependent on things like entertainment. We’re less dependent on tourism. We’re to some degree less dependent on basic leisure and hospitality compared to other areas,” Sumell said. “And those are the sectors that are getting hit the hardest as a result of the pandemic.”

However, Sumell was quick to say the impact felt in the Mahoning Valley would be immense.

“We’re certainly going to be feeling the impact,” Sumell said. “And it’s going to be really bad.”

In response to financial hardships universities across the country are facing, the U.S. Department of Education distributed millions of dollars to college campuses through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.

YSU received nearly $10.38 million, and half will go to the students. Eastern Gateway Community College, the only other college in Youngstown, will receive nearly $1 million.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan announced that over $50 million in federal funds would go to northeast Ohio higher education institutions and students.

“Unfortunately, too often the coronavirus’ impact on our students has been under appreciated,” Ryan said in a press release. “Like other Americans, our students’ lives have been upended by this crisis and need the financial support this money will give them to provide for their basic needs.”

“Our colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education are important to our communities — first as centers of learning for our students, but also for the employment and services they provide,” he continued. “This funding will ensure that they have the financial resources they need to serve their students and pay their employees.”

Additionally Ryan said the CARES Act aid could offset some of the additional expenses by the university.

Students’ Financial Hardships

Through the disbursement of CARES Act money, YSU established the $1,000 Penguins CARE Emergency Grant.

More than 3,500 YSU students who received Federal Pell Grants during the spring 2020 semester are eligible to apply for $1,000 in emergency payments to help defray the expenses related to COVID-19, according to Eddie Howard, vice president for student affairs, in a press release on May 1.

To be eligible for the grant, students must have also been enrolled in an on-campus degree program during the spring 2020 semester and incurred pandemic-related expenses for housing, food, course materials, technology, health care and child care.

Howard said this is the first phase of the university’s federal CARES Act funds.

“These grants will certainly help ease the financial burden that many of our students are feeling as a result of the pandemic,” he said.

To aid those most affected by the pandemic, the YSU Foundation has begun the Penguin-to-Penguin campaign. This campaign, which launched March 26, aimed to raise $50,000 for YSU students that are in “dire need of basic necessities,” according to YSU Foundation President Paul McFadden.

Howard said the fund has received more than $75,000 in private donations as of May 1.

“We have been humbled and overwhelmed by the response to the Penguin-to-Penguin campaign that will provide immediate funding for students adversely affected by the outbreak,” McFadden said. “The response by alumni, staff and friends has been immediate and extraordinary.”

The campaign will provide the university’s most vulnerable students with up to $500 for housing, medical bills, food, safety needs, travel costs related to a death or illness, rent, utilities and other basic necessities.

Tressel said he knew the university needed to act fast to help students in financial emergency situations during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“The purpose is for us to make sure that we can handle any ongoing things for students who really have just an unusual moment … whether it’s a medical bill or transportation,” he said. 

Tressel said the university is trying to accommodate the different situations students face.

“We’re just trying to think of every way and every incident that could be coming someone’s way that we can be helpful,” he said. 

Nathan Myers, associate provost for international and global initiatives, said his department conducted a survey and discovered the top two needs international students face during this pandemic. 

“We got a response rate of 40, and the top two things were financial help more than usual. I think that was coming from a place where a lot of them worked student jobs,” he said. “Then No. 2 in the list was actually finding food.”

Taufeeque Mohammad, a former international student at YSU, said international students rely heavily on student employment for their main source of income. 

“The biggest issue is employment because international students can just work on campus,” he said. “We are here on talent. We are here on the scholarships.”

Mohammad said he also knows what his family is going through back at home in Nepal with COVID-19 spreading worldwide. 

“It’s messed up back home too,” he said. “So even at this point of time, I can’t get help from my family.” 

Myers said any amount of compensation would be beneficial for international students.

“You know 35 or 50 bucks. …  That could be a real difference maker in order simply to buy groceries or order them for delivery,” he said. “I will say they do a pretty good job of looking after each other.” 

International students aren’t the only ones needing assistance during the pandemic. Myers said domestic students are in the same position. 

“I know a lot of our domestic students, they’re losing jobs too,” he said. “It’s not only the international students that need help.” 

Nicole Kent-Strollo, director of the Office of Student Outreach and Support, said she is responsible for administering funds to the students, and applications started coming in right after the application was posted.

“The biggest challenge right now is we’re counting on those funds coming in. I think if we had our way, we would help everyone,” she said.

Kent-Strollo said it’s amazing to see the Youngstown community support the fund through different donations. 

“What we’ve seen so far with regard to our alum, our faculty, our staff who have, like, jumped into a system anyway, even before the funds started,” she said. 

Tressel said he urges students to reach out to the university for any needed assistance. 

“Know that we’re here for you,” he said. “Sometimes all of us are so immersed in trying to take classes online or deliver classes online and being on all these conference calls.” 

Students can apply for the Penguins CARE Emergency Grant at ysu.edu/caresgrant. Once eligibility is verified, $1,000 will be disbursed through check or direct deposit. There is no application deadline, but any funds not disbursed in 12 months will be returned to the federal government. 

To apply for the Penguin-to-Penguin fund, go to the financial aid and scholarships portion of the YSU website. Donations to the Penguin-to-Penguin campaign can be made on the YSU Foundation’s website.

For more information on the Take Charge of Our Future Focus Groups that were organized to consider the university’s future, visit YSU’s website.

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