ST. PAUL — One way or another, each of the 37 colleges and universities in the Minnesota State system will be open in the fall, said Chancellor Devinder Malhotra on Thursday.

Malhotra usually visits each campus in person during the spring semester to give an update on what's happening in St. Paul and to interface with students and staff. The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered such travel impossible, so Malhotra instead provided remarks to The Globe via Zoom.

"There is still a lot we don't know," Malhotra said, "but this much is certain: every one of our 30 colleges and seven universities will be open in fall, ready to welcome students and prepared to adapt in order to safely serve the student body and provide affordable and exceptional education."

As the coronavirus unfolded worldwide, Malhotra made the Feb. 28 decision to cancel all spring travel and study abroad. On March 6, Minnesota confirmed its first case of the virus. Using an extended spring break, Minnesota State faculty spent two weeks migrating more than 20,000 courses to an online platform in order to offer distance learning for the remainder of the term.

Completing spring semester is the first priority, Malhotra explained. About 95% of all courses are being finished online, and Malhotra is working with Gov. Tim Walz to get lab work approved in classes where it's absolutely necessary.

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Next, plans are in the works for summer classes. Malhotra said most courses will be entirely online, with a few face-to-face meetings toward the end of the summer where needed.

For fall, Malhotra envisions three possible scenarios: 1) Minimal disruption and classes continue as normally as possible; 2) Classes are offered with social distancing in place and a mix of online and face-to-face instruction, or; 3) Minnesota's stay-at-home order still in place and distance learning needed.

Officials have re-developed Minnesota State's courses to accommodate any of these scenarios, or a mid-term transition between them, Malhotra said.

Enrollment impact

The impact of COVID-19 on the Minnesota State system's enrollment is still in flux, Malhotra explained. So far, system-wide, enrollment is down 8% to 10% for summer term, but some institutions are actually seeing an increase. It's too early to tell how fall enrollment will be affected, but a number of long-term trends suggest several possible outcomes.

For example, Malhotra said, usually when unemployment rises, so does enrollment, because out-of-work people tend to get additional training or make a career change. On the other hand, high unemployment could mean that the workforce can't afford to go back to school. To that end, Minnesota State has dramatically increased its number of workforce development scholarships for high-demand industries like health care and agriculture.

Financial impact

COVID-19 has affected many Minnesotans financially, and Minnesota State is no exception. Thanks to the passing of the CARES Act, "Every student will get some funds to defray some of the costs of COVID-19," Malhotra said, adding that Minnesota State received about $93 million in CARES Act funding, and about half is going directly to students.

Between March 1 and June 30, Minnesota State is slated to lose $35 million to $40 million in added costs and lost revenue as a result of the pandemic. Moving courses online, additional cleaning and safety measures, lowering class sizes and refunding residence hall expenses and dining dollars all cost taxpayer money.

If fall semester enrollment drops by 20%, Minnesota State could be looking at loss of $279 million, Malhotra said.

"We have a narrower margin for absorbing financial shocks" than private universities with large endowments, he added. With that in mind, Minnesota State has submitted a significant capital bonding request to the legislature, including $150 million for asset preservation and $121.2 million for 15 individual campus projects.

Necessity of services

About 60% of Minnesota college graduates have attended a Minnesota State college or university, Malhotra said. Alumni are a diverse group, including 10,000 veterans and 47,000 first-generation college students.

It's important that Minnesota State "ensure that the most vulnerable individuals in society have access to education," he added. "We have to stay viable, stay relevant and come out strong on the other side."

Eight-six percent of law enforcement officers, 67% of nurses, 94% of two-year degree holders in advanced manufacturing, 52% of IT professionals and 43% of people in businesses in Minnesota have graduated from a Minnesota State institution.

Minnesota State "is the engine for economic and social vibrancy for the state of Minnesota," Malhotra said. COVID-19 has the potential to disrupt the state's talent pipeline, but he and others are working to prevent that as much as is possible.

"We are hopeful that we will come out better and stronger," he said.