Coronavirus and Higher Ed. Bailouts

John David

CounterCurrent: Week of 3/22

If you follow the news, even casually; if you’ve spoken to another human being in the past month; if you’ve done none of these things and live under a rock, you know that COVID-19 has adversely impacted virtually every sector of public life in the United States and many nations abroad. Understandably, it’s all we can seem to talk about. Schools, restaurants, movie theaters, sports leagues, and many more have closed their doors. Millions have suddenly found themselves out of work. The government has promised relief, but it won’t be enough to make things go “back to normal” anytime soon.

Higher education is, of course, part of this equation. Nearly every college and university in the country has switched to online “distance learning” for the remainder of the semester. Many more have strongly recommended or even ordered their students to return home. Until when? At least until next semester, if not later. No one really knows the extent to which this viral threat will damage higher education, especially with regards to finance.

This pandemic is going to cost schools a lot of money—that much is clear. Many more high school seniors may opt for gap years in order to “wait out the storm” before heading off to college. International enrollment will likely decrease, as students will be unsure about their ability to return home due to unpredictable travel restrictions. Many schools’ top donors are losing money due to the drastic economic downturn, meaning they will be giving less across the board. These are just to name a few.

As is happening with other sectors, some kind of federal assistance is in order to help higher education regain its footing. But what form should this take? In this week’s featured article, Nate Johnson of Inside Higher Ed offers some rather extreme recommendations as part of a $72 billion higher education bailout. These include:

Immediate doubling of Pell Grant awards to all 2019-20 recipients, fully paid out to students. All government or institutional collections on loans and student account balances would be temporarily suspended for recipients, and students could choose to use the funds for anything they need -- education expenses at their current or a different institution, living costs, technology purchases, sanitizing wipes, helping other family members, etc. (rough cost of $29 billion). [emphasis added]

We can discuss the pros and cons of government-sponsored Wet Wipes another time. What stands out at first glance is the incredibly wide-ranging scope of Johnson’s recommendations for students, quite literally including “anything they need.” Notably absent are any cuts on behalf of colleges and universities. Now that students have returned home for distance learning, countless higher ed administrators—from the offices of diversity & inclusion, Title IX, student life, etc.—suddenly have very little to do. Maybe Chief Diversity Officers’ six-figure salaries can be cut to help save schools. Or the hefty funding allotted to Offices of Multicultural Affairs can be temporarily slashed during a time of emergency. Or countless other cuts to expenses about which we don’t even know.

There are many possibilities that would allow colleges and universities to save money in addition to receiving it. But will they be willing to sacrifice some of their extraneous administrative bulk in the process? I’m doubtful, but it’s certainly an issue worth watching.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’  weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Administrative Associate John David. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Harold Mendoza, Public Domain

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