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Covid-19 will impact college enrollments 'well after 2020': Florida A&M University President

Larry Robinson - Florida A&M University President joins Yahoo Finance’s On The Move panel to discuss how the university is ensuring students safety amid the pandemic.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: Well, a lot of universities have gone back in some capacity to school. And we have seen an uptick in COVID cases as a result. So let's talk about that right now with the president of Florida A&M University. That is Larry Robinson. He is joining us from Tallahassee.

And sir, if you could unmute, that would be fantastic. I also want to bring into the conversation Aarthi Swaminathan on our staff, who covers education for us. Larry, you all have at your university a page that tracks COVID cases on campus.

LARRY ROBINSON: Yes, we do.

JULIE HYMAN: 23 students currently positive, 22 employees currently positive. What made you come to that decision in terms of transparency and how you were going to track and reveal this data? And then how are you using that information?

LARRY ROBINSON: Yeah, so we really just wanted everybody to know the status of things at the university-- students who are here, parents who are not here, members of our board and others who have a vested interest in the university and its operation. Then we began what we considered to be a fairly comprehensive plan to begin with. And so in the state of Florida, as you know, there are very few things, other than the names of these individuals, that are not public information anyway. But we thought it would be to our stakeholders' advantage for them to know.

So what we have is, in terms of our testing, we have a sentinel testing program. We test key personnel, certain staff members, the resident advisors, athletes, and so forth. And that's how we then determine how to manage things.

And so we have really-- the other good news is that we only have two students who are-- who have been isolated in some of our dormitories away from other students and staff. And we provide them in those units with the services that they need to continue their academic progression. So it's all about being open to our constituents, letting them know what's happening on the campus.

Now, the numbers that I have, you have to get the time frame, because they do change. We started posting them on the website as of August the 1st. And that shows 88 total cases. 60 of them are students and 28 are staff. We update that periodically, but that's the data as of the 25th, I believe.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: President Robinson, I'm very curious about the relationship with the White House that you have. You got a bunch of tests from the White House. And also, that has been a big initiative that the White House has been pushing. So I'm wondering, is this sufficient? And second question is what else do we need to weather this storm?

LARRY ROBINSON: Right. So one of the things we have had at our advantage is that since April the 25th, we've had a community-based COVID-19 testing site on our campus, actually at our football stadium since April the 25th. Just this week, we surpassed 51,000 tests being administered at this site. So that allows us the flexibility of having it readily accessible to citizens on the south side of town, low-income residents, [INAUDIBLE] residents.

They can come without a physician's referral. They can come asymptomatic. They can drive up. They can walk up. So it's highly accessible.

Those additional 7,000 rapid tests that we received this week from the White House will be very, very important in our overall testing strategy, because now we can target certain groups and get data back immediately. But the interesting thing about this is that we-- we'll know who those individuals are. We'd have to share that information with the counting and the Florida Department of Health, because they do the contact tracing.

And that's the other part of it that's important. It's not just the individuals who test. It's those who might have been exposed to the virus or those who have been tested positive. So those are going to make a big difference for us.

Now, what we're looking at next is sort of expanding our testing capacity beyond the state-sponsored site that we have on our campus. And it's not just to do the testing, but we would love to have students and faculty engaged in learning the ins and outs of this type of pandemic and how to get ready for the next one.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Professor-- President Robinson, Adam Shapiro here. Your institution has survived more than 120 years, so I imagine you are prepared to survive this. But I'm curious, there are other pressures. It's not just COVID, but student debt. What are universities, especially historically Black colleges and universities, going to look like after the pandemic with so much pressure on students, the cost as well as am I getting the education I need, especially when we see all of this in a pandemic-like situation? What's the return on the investment?

LARRY ROBINSON: Well, Adam, let me correct you slightly. On Saturday, October the 3rd, we will celebrate 133 years as an institution. And we are really, really proud of that.

With regard to our students, though, let me tell you that we are already seeing some of the economic impacts, we believe, of the pandemic on our students. We've seen a decline in enrollment, about 5% or 6%, right? And although we survey students ahead of time as to what would be the determining factors regarding them coming back to us, and many of the talked about how we operated in this COVID environment.

But most of them talked about the financial implications that their families are already experiencing. And I think that's going to happen for some time, longer than the next election. I really think we're going to see these students experience, and their families, some economic difficulties into the future.

And so what we do at the university is first make sure our students have the right academic programs that are going to provide them the types of careers that will allow them to leave us with as-- prepare to take on any debt that they can. But when we are-- we are very, very proud to have been in the state university system in Florida of having the lowest out-of-pocket cost to our students to begin with. So when you couple what they get in federal aid and what we provide them in funding that we garner from alumni and others, it puts them at a pretty good situation.

However, that doesn't necessarily make them whole because of the family income levels. They have to make loans, in many cases, to make themselves whole. So it's important for us to make sure that they get in and out as quickly as they can and then they get into the type of employment opportunities that allow them to address any debt problems that they might have.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: Hey, president, just quickly, what do you feel about the state of higher education right now with enrollment declines in multiple schools?

LARRY ROBINSON: Yeah, I am concerned, in particular for those persons in the socioeconomic ram that we serve, because I think there are going to be the most negatively impacted by it. They are going to be from the families where employment won't turn around as quickly as some others might be. Their households don't have sort of the bank rolls to rely upon to get things going. And so we've been articulating to our constituents, those who love us and support us, that we're going to have to do more to support our students.

And so I think we have to make sure that in this country, in particular as we roll out these stimulus packages-- the CARES Act was very, very helpful to us, right, in helping us through this. And the next package, I did see the large educational piece to that. That's critically important to us. And I think the way that goes in terms of funding for us would help make a huge difference.

It has changed and will continue to change how we deliver education. We went from less than 10% of our courses being offered virtually to now over 85% of them. And so that's going to-- some of that will stay. Students will have adapted to that environment. They're going to enjoy it more. It allows them who have opportunities to work to do it perhaps unencumbered in ways they have been in the past.

And at the same time, it puts us in a place where we're having to compete with others who may have been in this space a little bit longer. The competition is going to get fierce. It already is for the best and brightest students, by the way, is pretty much hand-to-hand combat. We are fortunate to be successful over the years in bringing some of those best and brightest students to Florida A&M University.

JULIE HYMAN: Larry Robinson, we wish you continued luck and success in that endeavor. Florida A&M University president, appreciate it, sir.