Higher Education and the Public Good

As the country grapples with severe economic challenges, this is the time to enroll people laid off during the COVID-19 crisis so they can improve their skills, writes Catharine Bond Hill.

April 21, 2020
 
 
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This is the moment for colleges and universities to double down on their obligations to serve the public good. Higher education institutions stepped up after World War II and educated huge numbers of returning veterans. While not all did so unreservedly, in the aggregate, they opened their doors to veterans. That increased higher education attainment was a major contributor to years of rapid growth for our country.

Can colleges and universities find the will to do so again, in the face of our battle against COVID-19, by supporting further education for those who lose their jobs as a result of the dislocation to our economy?

As we continue to fight the pandemic and the current financial challenges, higher education needs to think further ahead. Even if the new $2 trillion stimulus package helps mitigate the effects on the economy, we will probably face a significant recession. This is the time to enroll adults and young people laid off during the crisis so they can improve their skills.

Make no mistake -- we face a massive challenge. Just at the time when the need for education will be at its highest, the incomes of students and their families will have fallen, along with college and university endowments. As has been made clear by Moody’s, the financial outlook for higher education is negative. Revenue sources, including state appropriations, earnings on endowments, charitable contributions and tuition payments will all be under significant stress -- by how much depends on how quickly the economy rebounds. We know that family incomes are going to suffer, making tuition payments a challenge, even if the investment has a high return. Low- and middle-income families, already in precarious financial positions, will be hit the hardest and most in need of further education.

Government has a vital role to play. While state governments cannot run deficits, the federal government can. This would be a perfect moment to make grants to states to invest in higher education, regardless of if doing so increases the federal deficit and debt levels. Doubling Pell Grants to benefit low-income families and getting more resources into the hands of community colleges -- where many people will turn for training -- will be key. Colleges and universities already receive large public subsidies. They may need more, but support should be tied to contributing to the public good by educating as many people as possible who are displaced by the economy during this national emergency.

Federal and state governments can help, but they can’t do it alone. Higher education needs to contribute as well. If colleges and universities can work together, every unemployed person can have the opportunity to further their education. Once the economy starts to improve, each institution will be thinking about how to recover financially. It would not be in the nation’s interest, however, if recovery happens via reducing need-based financial aid for both traditional-age students and unemployed or underemployed adults seeking additional education.

Colleges and universities will need to adjust and change the way they operate if they are to contribute to the longer-run welfare of our nation by educating more low- and middle-income students, including adult learners, than they do today. Can we convince all higher education institutions to take more students, accept greater transfer credit so that past coursework is not wasted, offer online courses and help educate adults in their communities who are unemployed or underemployed? For residential colleges and universities, most of these adult learners wouldn’t require dorm spaces, so such capacity constraints shouldn’t be an issue. And, with the newly gained experience in teaching online, stepping up like this wouldn’t even require classroom space.

Institutions will need to be creative. Faculty members will need to teach more courses or students for a period of time, including online. Institutions could hire underemployed adjunct faculty to teach and contribute to the economic recovery in that way.

The first battle is to get COVID-19 under control, resolving the health challenges facing our population. Until that is accomplished, we will not be able to deal with our second challenge, which is the economy. The impact of a prolonged recession will be devastating for many families who face lost jobs, income and savings. In partnership with the federal and state governments, colleges and universities can be part of the solution. Higher education can help restore growth to America by investing in all those displaced by the crisis who will need new skills to be a productive part of the recovering economy.

As a nation, we can improve postsecondary education and increase the talents of our workforce. That will in turn contribute to our nation's future success through human capital formation, positioning us for higher sustained growth, higher incomes and greater global competitiveness.

Bio

Catharine Bond Hill is managing director of Ithaka S+R and president emerita of Vassar College.

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