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NIU's budget shortfall $7M less than expected due to 1% enrollment rise, though COVID-19 brings extra costs

DeKALB – In a preliminary budget, Northern Illinois University’s Board of Trustees projected a $39 million shortfall for the 2021 fiscal year.

But thanks to an unexpected increase in enrollment, that shortfall was $32 million as presented to the board on Thursday.

Chief Financial Officer Sarah Chinniah said the initial budget projection was for an 8% decrease in student enrollment. But enrollment actually rose about 1% this year, creating an extra $7 million in expected revenue.

Chinniah pointed to two other impacts on the budget from the preliminary one – a rise in salaries and spending more on COVID-19 related costs, including COVID-19 surveillance testing for students, a strategy the university is employing in an attempt to more quickly assess and mitigate community spread of the disease on campus.

The budget was a non-voting matter for the board, though the board voted to reallocate a portion of student fees to help mitigate the cost of coronavirus measures.

An extra $18.31 of student fees per credit hour will go toward mitigation, which President Lisa Freeman said will include increased surveillance testing. The university has tested 616 students through the first two weeks of surveillance testing, which chooses on-campus students at random to take a COVID-19 test. There have been six positive results linked through the surveillance testing method.

Through Wednesday, there have been 187 total positive coronavirus tests among students and staff.

Freeman also said some of the fees would be used for wastewater testing, which tests sewage runoff from buildings for the coronavirus. It helps as an early detection system, according to the Centers for Disease Control website.

Another portion of the redirected fees would go toward quarantine. According to the school, 7.6% of the school’s quarantine and isolation areas are in use.

Freeman said other universities make students pay associated fees for isolation or quarantine, but she said the economic status of many students makes it imperative for the school to cover those expenses, which she said is an extra $6 million more than originally expected.

Freeman said the school is set to receive $30 million in federal aid in various relief bills in Congress that are currently stalled.

“Obviously the receipt of federal aid will make a difference,” Freeman said. “It’s very disappointing for me to sit here and tell you there is broad agreement across the White House and both houses of Congress that higher education institutions need relief … but that partisan differences and politics and the fact it’s an election year has made it challenging for the relief to be approved and authorized. That uncertainty helps to keep us up at night.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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