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The Crisis and the Recovery: Policy Recommendations for Higher Education

In March 2020, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were dramatic and swift. Almost all colleges and universities shut down their campuses and transitioned to remote learning. Practically overnight, students living on campus were sent packing, institutions lost enormous amounts of auxiliary revenue and were forced to lay off staff, and many faculty and staff had to adapt to doing their jobs from home. Meanwhile, the toll of a public health and economic crisis bled into our day-to-day lives, making it even more challenging to balance the academic needs of educating students with the personal and mental health needs of the campus community.

As the crisis unfolded that spring, New America, a public policy institute, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), a membership organization, partnered on a year-long research project to understand the effects of several pivotal moments—the pandemic, the economic crisis, the election, and a racial reckoning—on America’s colleges and universities. We interviewed more than one hundred college and university administrators, students, and leaders of higher education membership organizations to hear about the difficulties faced by campus communities.

New America and SHEEO believe there is an important role for federal and state governments to play, along with institutions, to ensure a robust recovery. In this article, we detail several key federal policy priorities related to funding and affordability, the digital divide, and accountability that can move colleges from crisis to recovery. Our full set of our recommendations can be found in our recent report, From Crisis to Recovery: Federal, State, and Institutional Recommendations for Higher Education.

Funding and Affordability

Along with calling for the establishment of federal-state partnerships to make tuition-free community college a reality and public four-year institutions more affordable, we also call for investment in minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and increases to the maximum Pell Grant to ensure all students have opportunities to pursue college.

MSIs, in particular, have been historically under-resourced due to the longstanding effects of structural racism. In the face of a pandemic-induced downturn, MSIs were faced with slashing their already skinny budgets. New America and SHEEO propose additional investment in MSIs to alleviate the historical underfunding of these institutions.

The Pell Grant, the cornerstone of federal programs to promote college access, has for years lagged behind college costs and associated living expenses. Low-income households, especially those of essential or service industry employees, were hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Many families have seen the chasm grow between where the Pell Grant ends and what students need to pay to set foot on campus. We call on Congress to substantially increase the Pell Grant and permanently reinstate the annual inflationary increase to the maximum grant.

There is some good news on all these fronts. In a recent budget resolution, the Senate Democrats proposed funding for free community college, investment in MSIs, and an increase in Pell Grants. Over time, we’ll learn more details about what this means for students. But it’s an important beginning to making college more affordable after the pandemic, and it’s long overdue.

The Digital Divide

During the pandemic, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). The EBB is meant to help low-income households afford broadband and technology by giving them a $50 monthly subsidy. Moving forward, Congress must make this program permanent and increase its funding. As more of our lives move online due to remote work and schooling, EBB will play a critical role in ensuring students can access the internet at the speeds necessary to be successful academically. The US Department of Education, along with colleges and universities, must reach out to current Pell recipients to let them know how they can access the benefit. In addition to making the EBB permanent, the proposed Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act would invest in expanding the nation’s broadband infrastructure and make affordable internet service a priority in the long term.

Accountability

At the beginning of the pandemic, higher education experts predicted that many colleges and universities would have to close because of dramatic enrollment declines, financial strains on families due to the pandemic, and the pivot to remote learning that decimated auxiliary revenues. Much of the worst predictions have not come to pass—in large part due to federal relief dollars—but as the pandemic enters its second year and federal relief dries up, several institutions may be on the financial brink. Closures and consolidations are still possible.

For this reason, we call on the Department of Education to immediately monitor schools at the highest risk of possible closure—in this case, colleges and universities that were in financial distress before the pandemic and have seen the most substantial declines in enrollment since the pandemic. Colleges at high risk of closure must be required to take immediate steps to protect their students from the harm of a closure. This includes developing teach-out plans (or, if they have a very high risk of closure, teach-out agreements) that prepare for students’ continuing education and record management plans that ensure students have access to necessary credentials and documents. The Department of Education must also ensure students receive clear communications well in advance about any possible closure of their institution and what it means for their financial aid, including their eligibility for a student loan discharge.

The Recovery

During one interview, the leader of a college membership organization voiced concern that this crisis wouldn’t result in the lasting change needed to tackle crises in the future. “Some are saying we’re going to weather the storm, we’ll get out on the other side of this, and everything will be fine,” she said. “I’m afraid that so many institutions across the country are engaging in short-term tactics as opposed to long-term strategic planning to address this challenge. This won’t be the last time we’re facing this crisis.”

Nearly a year and a half after the terrible spring of 2020, higher education is in a confusing moment. That leader’s worries were prescient. We’re not out of the crisis yet, but we hope that Congress, the Biden administration, and state governments continue to enact policy changes to make higher education more affordable in the long-term, ensure digital access to our increasingly online education system, and put robust consumer protections in place.

Rachel Fishman is deputy director for research in the education policy program, and Sophie Nguyen is policy analyst in the education policy program—both at New America.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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