Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Congress Should Give Colleges a Lifeline in Next Stimulus

Blog Post
Sept. 9, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the country. Millions of Americans are unemployed, state and local governments are strapped for cash, and schools are starting a new academic year—either remotely or in person. And they’re doing so without any assistance from the federal government because, at least for the time being, partisan politics and a lack of leadership have caused negotiations for a second relief package to fall apart.

Higher education is just one of the many sectors of the economy that have been left to fend for themselves right now. Colleges and universities have been put between a rock and a hard place: reopen campus while daily coronavirus case numbers continue to climb, or tell students to stay home and provide online instruction, putting the school’s financial security at risk due to lost housing and auxiliary revenue.

Colleges and universities have been put between a rock and a hard place: reopen campus while daily coronavirus case numbers continue to climb, or tell students to stay home and provide online instruction, putting the school’s financial security at risk due to lost housing and auxiliary revenue.

A Balancing Act

Reopening campus comes with significant public health risks in many instances. College campuses have been hit hard by the pandemic due to the density of classrooms, dining halls, and residence halls. College students can also live in multigenerational homes, and often come to campus from different parts of the country, some of which might be hotspots for the virus. Other campuses are sitting in the middle of one themselves.

On the other hand, many feared that if colleges stayed online in the fall, students might opt to not enroll—and therefore not pay tuition—without the on-campus experience. Even if students re-enrolled online paying full tuition, institutions would have to find a way to make up for the lost revenue from auxiliary services, like housing, food services, and athletics in order to balance their budget. And while elite, wealthy institutions are often the talk of headlines and presidential tweets, most schools aren’t flush with cash. Many colleges are tuition-dependent and sensitive to even a small dip in enrollment, let alone having to sacrifice the entirety of their auxiliary revenues. A loss that significant could mean permanently closing many colleges.

This financial predicament is made worse by the fact that many states are facing revenue losses and higher education is almost always the first budget line to get cut. Public colleges and universities are expecting to see already-limited state investments pulled as states balance their budgets. And historically underfunded colleges, like community colleges and HBCUs, will bear the brunt of these cuts. The loss of auxiliary revenue and state funding combined led many college administrators to predict a gloomy fall semester, with either serious financial or health implications. Without a Congressional deal to provide relief in time for the start of the academic year, colleges and universities had few options. The possible financial reality of staying online put a lot of pressure on institutions to reopen.

The Show Must Go On

So what did schools do? They forged ahead and planned for the new semester without any additional resources since the spring to manage this crisis. Schools reacted in a number of ways. California Community Colleges—the largest higher education system in the country—announced early in the spring they would remain online for the fall semester. Paul Quinn College in Texas decided on July 9th they weren’t bringing students back in the Fall and stayed online. They even reduced tuition by $2,000. But on the opposite side of the spectrum, Purdue University president Mitch Daniels proudly told Congress he ordered a “mile of plexiglass” to reopen his campus and wrote in the Washington Post that it would be an “unacceptable breach of duty” to not reopen. Daniels wasn’t the only one. Several prominent universities chose to bring students back to campus, some only bringing a portion of them to campus.

But in many cases, reopening has been a mess. According to the College Crisis Initiative, since August 1st, over 40 schools shifted their plan for the fall semester to either primarily or fully online. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill brought students back, only to shut down the campus a week later after a spike in coronavirus cases. Two weeks after reopening they reported nearly 650 new cases from students, faculty, and staff. And even though The University of Notre Dame president wrote in the Wall Street Journal that it was “worth the risk to reopen,” he was forced to temporarily close the campus after nearly 450 cases were identified on campus within just the first few weeks of class. Still, Notre Dame started gradually reopening last week, though it’s too early to tell how successful that will be.

Campuses that have reopened put students at risk in many cases. When coronavirus outbreaks happen on campus, they won’t stop at the campus edge. Students, faculty, and staff are all members of the broader community, creating further risk for community spread. For one, many students live off-campus, which has been linked to many of the outbreaks on campuses. And many students—regardless of where they live—have off-campus employment. Faculty and staff primarily live away from the college or university in which they work. They go to the grocery in their community and many have children educated in the community schools. By bringing students back to campus, colleges and universities are jeopardizing the health of their wider community.

We Need Better Than "Hope for the Best"

But it didn’t have to be this way. The federal government stepped in and passed the CARES Act in March, which provided funding that allowed colleges to go remote, protect students from the virus, and not risk permanent closure when the coronavirus first hit. But the pandemic hasn’t gone away, and thanks to failed leadership at the highest levels of our federal government, the coronavirus is worse than before with more than 189,000 Americans dead. For months, higher education advocates, institutions, and associations told Congress that more money was needed for the fall to safely bring students back or offer quality online or hybrid instruction. House Democrats passed a bill in May that would have provided more money, but Senate Republicans balked at the overall price tag and never considered the legislation. Finally, in July they introduced their own proposal that included money for school, though a different amount. But their differences on other issues meant no deal was reached and schools were left on their own with no additional resources to manage the crisis and essentially hope for the best in the fall.

By not providing the appropriate funds, the federal government created a scenario where schools have been incentivized—or forced in some instances—to reopen, putting students, faculty, staff, and even the community at risk. That’s not to say that having assistance available would guarantee that all college administrators would have made the right call. Some may have chosen to reopen fully regardless. But, Congress could have ensured that colleges had a lifeline so they could appropriately respond to the crisis. Without any relief aid, many leaders weren’t given the ability to make the decision.

And providing coronavirus relief didn’t necessarily mean a full government bailout for all of higher education. Some schools might have needed just a little assistance to adopt policies that reduced the number of students on campus. For example, some colleges, like Yale, brought back a smaller portion of students to campus so that students can distance in dorms and across the campus. But most colleges and universities are not as well-resourced as Yale, so they can’t withstand the loss in housing revenue. But resources to fill in the gaps could have allowed some schools to take that type of approach. And colleges in hard-hit areas could have especially used a safety net from the federal government to allow them to remain online and avoid bringing students into cramped quarters and exacerbate or cause outbreaks.

Colleges should not have to choose between risking their existence or risking the health of students and the community writ large.

We shouldn’t have to accept this. “Hope for the best” isn’t a policy solution. In a national crisis, the country relies on the federal government to do its job to provide assistance when it’s needed. In this case, the federal government needed to provide funding to colleges so that they could do what is best for their campus and community, either by remaining online or adopting a hybrid instruction and/or hybrid on-campus model. Colleges should not have to choose between risking their existence or risking the health of students and the community writ large. Congress must put partisan politics aside and pass another coronavirus relief package with aid for colleges and universities. Otherwise, institutions will become the next hot spots—harming students, faculty and staff while prolonging the pandemic—or be forced to close forever.