The devastating effects of COVID-19 have created
many uncertainties for the nation’s colleges and
universities. But several issues were undisputed
during the Institute’s 2020 Spring Conference,
“Higher Ed: Who Pays?”
The pandemic will almost surely worsen the
already deep declines in government funding for
public higher education. Many students, reeling
from burdensome debt before the pandemic, are
now facing even tougher health and economic challenges.
And students of color are being hit hardest.
The “new economics” of higher ed were the
timely and troubling focus of the conference, co-sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s
Economics Department and conducted via Zoom.
“COVID is exacerbating weaknesses in our
[higher education] system,” said the University
of Michigan’s Susan Dynarski. History shows, she
said, that economic downturns mean further cuts
to state funding for colleges and universities—institutions
still recovering from reductions during
the Great Recession.
But the pandemic’s impact could be deeper
and different. “We are, indeed, in a very dangerous
time,” Dynarski added. She and other panelists
feared the demise of some colleges and a growing
inability of low-income students to afford tuition.
Many jobs usually held by college students have
disappeared because of COVID-19, she noted.
During the Great Recession’s declining job market,
students flocked to higher education hoping
to gain skills. That’s not likely to happen now.
The keynote address from Temple University’s
Sara Goldrick-Rab focused on the health and
well-being of college students. Both are in rapid
decline because of the coronavirus,
she said, sharing results from
a survey she conducted in spring
2020 of nearly 39,000 students
attending 54 higher ed institutions.
“There is no college opportunity
if one is not well enough to go to
school,” said Goldrick-Rab, citing
her finding that 58 percent of students
responded that they were
experiencing housing challenges,
food insecurity, or homelessness.
A telling point: In fall 2019, 72 percent
of African American students
experienced these insecurities,
16 percentage points higher than
for White students. By spring
2020, the Black-White gap had
increased to 19 points.
She urged colleges and
universities to better inform students
about the resources available
to them, such as unemployment insurance,
the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,
or other on-campus emergency aid. “Connecting
their students to support is key,” she said of
higher ed institutions’ responsibilities in these