Lawmakers Divided on How Government Should Support Higher Education as Fall Semester Approaches

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

A virtual hearing of the House Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee on Tuesday served as a prime example of the litany of questions that remain as the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus continues to disrupt the country’s academic calendar, both this year and likely for the foreseeable future.

The hearing also underscored the growing partisan divide over what it will look like for higher education institutions to reopen safely in the fall — and what is needed from the federal government for that to happen.

Several Democrats who spoke Tuesday touted the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act as a way to help higher education institutions navigate the uncharted waters and lamented the lack of federal support besides the most recent stimulus package, while a handful of Republicans asked college and university leaders how they can trim expenses at their institutions and highlighted the assistance institutions already received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The CARES Act allocated nearly $14 billion for higher education institutions — with about half going directly to students in the form of emergency aid grants — though many in the higher education community and leaders who spoke during the hearing stressed the need for additional funding from the federal government.

NASFAA joined dozens of higher education associations in an April letter sent to House leadership calling on an additional $47 billion to help offset the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“While the CARES Act provided badly needed stabilization funding, more assistance is vital for us to continue to effectively serve our students, provide remote learning, and prepare to safely reopen our campuses,” said Sharon Pierce, president of Minneapolis College, a two-year community college. “Additional funding from the federal government providing direct aid to students impacted by COVID-19 will support their continuous enrollment and aid the economic recovery of our nation.”

Pierce added that while many schools are offering instruction exclusively online this fall — and possibly longer — some students still yearn for in-person, on-campus instruction.

“For some of our students, the act of being on campus and coming to campus is what inspires them to persevere,” she said.

Timothy White, chancellor of the California State University System, surprised many in the higher education community earlier this year when he announced the system would be exclusively online for the fall semester, marking the first major public higher education system to make such a decree.

On Tuesday, White outlined the significant losses the system faced in the spring while attempting to transition to online learning on the fly, an experience that led him and system leadership to their ultimate decision to conduct an online-only fall semester. Additionally, he said estimates showed it would cost $50 million per month to conduct routine testing for students and staff throughout the expansive system where more than 480,000 students are enrolled, which he said “is just not in the cards.”

He also called for additional funding, noting that higher education in California is facing a budget cut of nearly $300 million, though it can be reversed if the federal government enacts another relief package that allocates funding for higher education through the states.

The HEROES Act, passed by the House in May but stagnant in the Senate, earmarks $90 billion for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, 30% of which must go to public institutions of higher education, distributed by governors. Another roughly $10 billion would go directly to institutions, including $1.7 billion for Minority-Serving Institutions, $7 billion for private nonprofit institutions, and $1.4 billion for public and nonprofit institutions with unmet need, including those that operate entirely online.

“We think it’s a very vital role for the federal government to play,” he said, adding that this predicament is not unique to California and will likely play out for years to come.

“A lot of people are using past tense, ‘How did you manage the pandemic?’ This is not a two-month problem or a six-month problem. This is a 12,18, 24-month — as a minimum — problem,” White predicted.

Both White and Pierce talked about the need for more resources for students if a transition to online learning is going to be the focus of the fall.

For Shaun Harper, president of the American Educational Research Association, the insistence on a return to campus and regular collegiate events instead of on how students can succeed amid the disruptions rubbed him the wrong way.

“I frankly find it annoying that so many campuses are scrambling to figure out how to play football this fall and how to ensure physical distancing in stadiums,” he said. 

“The money would be better spent trying to figure out how to close the digital equity access gaps and how to better prepare faculty to teach online, at least for this fall semester.”

He added that much like the pandemic itself for health outcomes, the fallout from COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the educational opportunities for Black students and students of color.

“The truth is we have way too much evidence to confirm that COVID-19 has had a racially disproportionate impact on communities of color,” Harper said. “Therefore it would be really reckless of us to attempt to remedy those inequities in a largely raceless way.”

Many of the lawmakers’ questions regarding online learning were directed toward Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, an online-only institution serving students across the country. 

“We need to reimagine post-secondary education as a true ‘lifelong model’ — providing high quality, relevant pathways to both an individual’s first and next opportunities,” he said, noting that higher education as a whole “entered the pandemic with preexisting conditions” that must be addressed. 

Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Penn.), ranking member on the subcommittee, saw a different kind of preexisting condition in higher education. 

"Government overreach and unnecessary intervention has contributed to a bloated postsecondary education sector at the expense of students,” he said in his opening remarks. “Tuition and fees have outpaced inflation for decades. Federal requirements stifle interaction between businesses and college campuses.”

Smucker said “forward-looking reforms” that focus more on competency-based learning, short-term credentials, and partnerships with employers, can help expand the higher education pathway for more Americans — issues Republicans have repeatedly pushed for in a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

As for when students do return to campus, Pierce said it would be helpful if the federal government established a broad and comprehensive testing, screening, and contact tracing program to ensure students and staff can return safely.

“I feel so badly as a member of Congress, which is supposed to govern our whole country, that we are putting these wonderful administrators of our great universities and community colleges into this position of having to deal with this pandemic when we’re not providing the national infrastructure of public health that we are capable of providing that would help them so much,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said in response.


Publication Date: 7/8/2020

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