Higher Ed Experts Urge for a “Manhattan Project Moment” to Combat Ongoing Pandemic in Response to the Emerging Economic Landscape

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The ongoing pandemic has upended the landscape of higher education for students, institutions, and the workforce in a chaotic manner that experts say will require a significant rethinking of how the federal government’s college funding programs work to improve economic outcomes for students.

In order to respond to this societal unfurling, a group of higher education experts convened in a conversation on Thursday hosted by the The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution to discuss the future of higher education, urging policy makers and industry stakeholders alike to approach the ongoing coronavirus crisis as a “Manhattan Project moment” to overcome what is likely to be the continued upheaval of societal norms as it relates to educational opportunities.

At the outset of the conversation, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor outlined Democrats’ priorities for higher education in the wake of the coronavirus, as outlined in the HEROES Act, remaining hopeful that additional relief could come soon.

“We know that the need for support for higher education has only grown more urgent and we hope that Secretary Mnuchin, notwithstanding the president's directive, will continue to negotiate,” Scott said. “Looking ahead, as this virus continues to spread we must make our investments in higher education. Innovative strategies to maintain students' access to education have a key role in that effort. However, we cannot let those innovative ideas come at the cost of quality and equity.”

Congressional talks on additional coronavirus aid remain up in the air, and it is unclear whether negotiations, that were recently sputtered by President Donald Trump, will resume and yield a near-term result that will allow for aid to be administered within the coming weeks.

Scott also said that Democrats would prioritize abating the economic impact the virus is having on recent graduates.

“When you graduate into a bad economy, you start off with a lower salary and then all your increases are based on that ... lower amount ... for the rest of your life. You could be suffering from the ravages of having graduated into a bad economy,” Scott said. “We need to focus on it, but it first means you have to defeat the virus, you open the schools, you have to have the job training — there's no one thing that needs to be done.”

Building off on Scott’s priorities, panelists urged sweeping reform to the higher education system. 

In a newly published paper, Richard Arum, dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine and Mitchell Stevens, professor of education at Stanford University, offer a guide to chronic and upcoming educational challenges for federal policymakers and institutions alike. 

The authors propose twin federal government initiatives to incentivize innovation in instructional delivery throughout the national postsecondary ecology, seeking to bridge the divide between academia and the workforce, and to accrete a cumulative science of adult learning.

“We are suggesitng a proactive Conrgess, a proactive presidential administration to ask, to call upon, to expect colleges and universities to respond to this need,” Stevens said. “We are essentially suggesting a reopening of negotiations in the social contract between universities and the federal government.” 

The authors went on to also call for the need to expand and equalize postsecondary access, and reduce the sector’s reliance on costly in-person instruction.

“The Manhattan Project metaphor is useful. We do now have the technological capacity to build data systems to dispassionately observe the relative value of different degrees over the entire life course... but resources have not been mobilized to assemble that infrastructure as a public good,” Stevens said. “That's essentially what we're advocating for here, at least in the beginning of building that infrastructure.”

Mary Sue Coleman, former president of the Association of American Universities and president emerita at the University of Michigan, reiterated the need of overhauling the system.

“This is a good time for the federal government to have some kind of dramatic program to return people to work, and give them opportunity,” Coleman said. “We've got to give people the skills so that they can succeed in the economy ... it's just going to be a different economy, and so we have to take that into account.”

The panel also said that the pandemic gives policymakers an opportunity to rework the higher education system in a manner that could deliver improved outcomes for students. 

“In a time of crisis, national purpose can be built around a shared bipartisan commitment to education and workforce training, and we hope we take advantage of that moment to bring our country together and ensure a healthy and productive future moving forward,” Arum said.

However, clear fiscal challenges remain and could create obstacles for implementing these lofty goals.

“I think there would be an outcry from the private sector, so I don't know quite how that would work,” Coleman said. “I also think a looming challenge is the federal deficit that is historic in amount, and it's going to make consensus difficult to achieve.”


Publication Date: 10/9/2020

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