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“We are in a dangerous time”: Lessons from our Higher Education Conference

Higher ed funding sure to be cut as student well-being declines

For All Fall 2020 | September 14, 2020


Jay Weiner Manager, Communications (former)
student sitting in an empty campus
UNCERTAINTY U Whether on campus or remotely, students face challenges beyond the classroom. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Washington Post via Getty Images
“We are in a dangerous time”: Lessons from our Higher Education Conference

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 uncertain times.

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