Can Colleges Reopen? 7 Questions From Congress As It Considers More...

Policy and Government

Can Colleges Reopen? 7 Questions From Congress As It Considers More Higher Ed Support

By Rebecca Koenig     Jul 8, 2020

Can Colleges Reopen? 7 Questions From Congress As It Considers More Higher Ed Support

This article is part of the collection: Sustaining Higher Education in the Coronavirus Crisis.

With the new semester quickly approaching, and coronavirus cases rising in most states, will colleges and college students have what they need to succeed this fall?

That’s the question members of Congress sought to answer as they gathered virtually on Tuesday to hear from expert witnesses representing community colleges, public universities and online higher ed institutions.

Two federal policy measures set the tone for the meeting of the House of Representatives Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee. One was the proposed HEROES Act, a $3 trillion stimulus bill follow-up to the already-enacted CARES Act, which would send more emergency support money to higher education and offer student loan borrowers additional relief. The House passed the bill in May, but the Senate hasn’t formally considered it.

The other was Monday’s announcement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that international students studying in the U.S. on certain visas will not be permitted to remain in the country if they exclusively take online courses in the fall. The guidance marks the end of temporary exemptions to this rule that had been in effect since March to accommodate the nationwide shift to remote instruction.

The ICE policy change sent foreign students scrambling and garnered condemnation from higher education leaders, including Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, who issued a statement calling it “immensely misguided and deeply cruel to the tens of thousands of international students who come to the United States every year.”

To figure out what additional support—if any—the federal government should grant to colleges and students as they adapt to the pandemic, representatives asked questions of Shaun Harper, president of the American Educational Research Association; Sharon Pierce, president of Minneapolis Community and Technical College; Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University; and Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University system.

These were the queries on legislators’ minds:

How did colleges spend the first round of federal emergency funding?

Unsurprisingly, officials wanted to know what happened to the government dollars the CARES Act granted to colleges. White and Pierce offered details about how their institutions connected students to emergency assistance grants—one of the law’s main requirements—and spent the additional money they received on shifting their courses and services online.

The Cal State system gave grants of $500 to $5,000, White said, disbursing money first to students whose families are least well-off. The institution used its own funds to support students who were ineligible to receive federal aid, including those who lack citizenship and immigration documentation.

Minneapolis Community and Technical College made more modest grants and spent its additional federal money addressing relevant needs such as technology tools and cleaning supplies.

What financial losses have colleges suffered, and will state budget cuts bring more?

Officials asked the college leaders to share information about their revenue losses and budget cuts and wondered whether some institutions are likely to suffer more than others in the months and years to come.

The Cal State system has lost more than $300 million in the pandemic, White reported. That’s about $100 million for each disrupted month of the spring semester, a rate he expects will continue, especially considering California cuts to education.

Minneapolis Community and Technical College has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from missed parking and auxiliary service fees alone, Pierce said, adding that if enrollment declines 10 percent, the institution anticipates losing more than $4 million.

State budget cuts will disproportionately harm historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and other minority-serving institutions, Harper argued, adding that offering additional money to these “chronically underfunded institutions” could help the country close its racial equity gaps.

Can a college education be delivered as well online as it can be in person?

In response to questions about how student graduation rates, job placement and levels of debt at Western Governors University compare to outcomes at more traditional residential colleges, Pulsipher made a pitch for online-only institutions like his: They’re affordable, aligned with workforce opportunities and designed to help students make progress quickly by measuring the competencies they gain rather than the hours they spend in classes, he said. Pulsipher added that his university helps people succeed in virtual courses by prioritizing mentoring and faculty interaction with students.

By contrast, Pierce articulated the value that in-person environments have for many learners, who may rely on college campuses to provide basics like food, shelter and child care in addition to education.

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

Not everyone has “a quiet stable environment in which to learn at home,” she added.

How can colleges cut costs during the pandemic?

Some legislators were less interested in sending more federal money to support colleges than in figuring out how to cut their spending.

When asked to identify areas where it might make sense for higher education to tighten its belt, Harper shared his annoyance at the resources some colleges are spending to adapt their football programs to pandemic conditions. The Cal State system has frozen hiring, cut its travel budget and worked with other institutions to procure technology at better rates, White reported. And Pierce said that Minneapolis Community and Technical College has cut programs that simply can’t transition online, such as aircraft maintenance.

To cut costs, colleges could focus less on providing students with an “emerging adult experience,” Pulsipher argued, and instead devote more their operating budgets to improving teaching and learning outcomes.

What lessons did higher education learn from the last recession?

Officials wondered whether the Great Recession a decade ago might offer any lessons about how higher education should and shouldn’t weather the current crisis.

The sector should watch out for the rise of predatory for-profit colleges, which saw big enrollment gains after the last recession, especially among women of color, Harper warned. Pierce echoed that concern, noting that students who come to public community colleges after passing through for-profit institutions often arrive having used up much of their Pell Grant eligibility in addition to carrying debt and credits that don’t lead to a degree.

“They start 10 feet behind the start line,” Pierce said.

The recession had a disproportionate effect on communities of color in general, Harper added, advocating that the government and colleges view the current crisis through a “race-forward, race-salient lens.”

What should happen to international students?

One congressman used his allotted time to address the new ICE announcement and ask the witnesses for feedback. Harper called the policy “xenophobic” and argued that international students make U.S. colleges better, in part because of the opportunity they offer American students to interact with people who have diverse perspectives.

Can campuses really reopen safely?

With virus testing capacity still limited, a few legislators were skeptical that it will be safe to ask students and faculty to return to campuses in just a few weeks.

“We can't just think about classrooms and dorms. Colleges anchor entire communities,” said Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat from Michigan. “Cases of COVID-19 within a student body or faculty aren’t going to stay within a campus’s walls.”

That’s why Cal State opted to keep classes virtual in the fall, White said, a decision that will prevent the system from having to spend an estimated $50 million dollars a month to continually test hundreds of thousands of students and staff.

Perhaps a federally-supported nationwide testing and contract-tracing program would help institutions reopen safely, Levin proposed.

The college leaders agreed.

"I feel so badly as a member of Congress, which is supposed to govern our whole country," Levin said, "that we're putting these wonderful administrators of our great universities and community colleges into this position of having to deal with pandemic when we're not providing the national infrastructure of public health that we're capable of providing, that would help them so much."

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