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Why America’s students, colleges and universities deserve more financial relief

Investing in higher education will help pave the way for a strong post-pandemic recovery

Georgetown University workers walk across campus with cleaning supplies on April 5.
Georgetown University workers walk across campus with cleaning supplies on April 5. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Public health and economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic are rippling across the nation as families struggle with illness, unemployment, financial hardship and disruptions to work, school, child care and everyday life. Nearly every sector of our society has been affected, including America’s colleges and universities. 

Social distancing measures have emptied lecture halls, dorms, cafeterias, labs and sports complexes  as most students have returned home, wondering if they will be able to return to campus in the fall.  By mid-April, 26 percent of college students were saying they were unlikely to return to their current school or it was too soon to tell. Meanwhile, 10 percent of high school seniors who were planning to attend a four-year college in the fall before the pandemic have indicated that their plans have changed. While schools shoulder the immediate financial burden of the transition to distance learning, partial room and board refunds, decreased donations, depleted endowments and lower revenue, they are also bracing for higher operational costs, diminished state support, and fewer students being able to afford to attend in the fall.  

We already know what happens when the federal government does not make a strong commitment to invest in students and our higher education system during a crisis. The 2008 economic downturn inflicted financial hardships on schools resulting in large tuition increases, while at the same time decreasing students’ ability to pay. Many middle- and working-class students were priced out of attending college or needed to take on substantial loans, which added to mounting student debt that has now grown to $1.6 trillion. We can’t make the same mistake again if we want schools to continue to provide top-notch educations, operate as innovation hubs, train (and retrain) our future workforce and pave the way for a strong recovery.

Access to higher education is critical for individuals and our nation because a college degree correlates to lower unemployment rates, higher weekly earnings and an improved quality of life. But many students are increasingly uncertain about whether they will be afforded this opportunity. Those currently enrolled in college are coping with the unexpected financial burden of leaving campus and transitioning to online learning. They, and others who hoped to join them in the fall, may also be facing the loss of part-time income and may have parents who are among the 30 million Americans suddenly unemployed. There is a lot at stake. And unless significant financial aid is available to these families, our nation risks losing a generation of future doctors, engineers and teachers, and falling behind globally in workforce competitiveness.  

Colleges and universities are important in training our nation’s future leaders and serve as cultural pillars and economic engines in their regions; lower enrollments would create economic ripples throughout higher education communities. For example, the University of Illinois system contributes nearly $17.5 billion annually to the economy and supports more than 171,000 jobs, including ancillary ones that support university operations and students such as baristas, bookstore clerks and construction workers. 

Small, independent colleges are also critically important in their communities. For example, Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana, not only provides students with meaningful educational opportunities but also generates $84.3 million to the state economy. Private colleges are often the cornerstone of small communities. Many have served as additional facility sites for hospital networks during the pandemic, and some have made massive donations of personal protective equipment and other health care supplies.

Universities, both large and small, provide critical intellectual capital that businesses rely on to develop new products and services. As our economy continues to adjust to COVID-19 impacts, it is critical that we provide stability to these institutions to minimize economic damage in their regions. In doing so, we must also enable colleges and universities to continue the research and development necessary to tackle our nation’s most complex issues, including defeating this virus and preventing future pandemics.  

From the beginning of this crisis, universities from Stony Brook to Berkeley have stepped up to fight COVID-19 by developing medical equipment and conducting research into drugs and vaccines that would enable us to return to pre-pandemic normalcy. After things stabilize, we will turn to colleges and universities to help our nation’s economy grow again and ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in technological innovation. Colleges will need support to meet workforce demands in growing fields such as cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing, which are important to secure our domestic supply chains. And we must ensure that middle- and working-class Americans won’t be priced out of accessing the training and retraining necessary to bolster our recovery.  

The CARES Act took a positive first step toward providing relief to struggling students and institutions. But this funding was only intended to cover a portion of immediate costs, not to address the needs of students and imperiled institutions going forward. Families and higher education institutions are grappling with the difficult realities created by this pandemic, and need a more substantial investment of $47 billion to meet the growing financial needs of families and schools as they prepare for the next academic year.

We must invest in the future of our nation and provide resources to support a strong recovery. Providing funding directly to schools, as we did in the CARES Act, is that best way to ensure that funds go to those students who need it most and encourages them to pursue higher education. It would also directly alleviate the need to rely on government bureaucracy and allow schools to utilize their existing financial aid structures. Colleges and universities are currently assembling financial aid packages as students make decisions about the fall semester. Now is the time to act.

Daniel Lipinski is a Democrat representing Illinois’ 3rd District. He is a senior member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Susan W. Brooks is a Republican representing Indiana’s 5th District. She serves on the House Energy and Commerce and Modernization of Congress committees.  

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