Higher education–public institutions and all but the wealthiest private colleges — faces an unprecedented crisis that will have catastrophic consequences for the nation. The economic cataclysm caused by the COVID 19 pandemic is devastating state budgets, and universities have lost additional billions as they refund housing and fees. Higher education leaders have announced drastic budget cuts, furloughs, lay-offs, and even permanent campus closures. Such measures build on over forty years of funding cuts by state legislatures and institutional reorganization that had already raised tuition by 260 percent and reduced tenure track faculty positions by 50 percent. A generation of students has been saddled with $1.6 trillion in unpayable debt, educators and researchers have faced insecure and poorly paid work, and support staff have been reduced. The COVID 19 pandemic has also revealed the deep race and class inequities in our educational systems, harming vulnerable institutions that serve lower-income people more than well-endowed schools. If nothing is done to turn the tide, the situation will get much worse.
The stop-gap emergency relief funds universities received through the CARES legislation were woefully insufficient. Our public institutions are suffering the greatest damage. They are already facing unprecedented losses of tens of billions of dollars, but received only $14 billion, or .7% of the April 20, 2020 CARES Act funding. The COVID crisis is compounding the threats already facing public higher education for decades.
Without immediate and sustained action, our system of higher education, the envy of the world, will be in shambles. Universities and colleges will close or shrink, and student debt will mount. The promise of equitable access will shrivel. We will lose the most vital economic and intellectual engine of democracy, innovation, and prosperity.
A New Deal for Higher Education contends that our nation’s colleges and universities are uniquely positioned at this moment of crisis to help the U.S. manage the unprecedented challenge of COVID 19, and to support American democracy going forward. We need a unified commitment to rebuild America’s institutions for the benefit of all. Institutions of higher education are crucial components in building a society that distributes resources and opportunities fairly and democratically. Higher education directly employs 3.6 million people, and accounts for 6.7 million jobs. Public institutions nationwide alone are currently educating 19.4 million students. The total gross output of higher education institutions due to research investments and wages accounts for $1 trillion annually.
Just as universities and colleges used infusions of federal funds from the GI Bill and public investment to help the nation adjust to the unprecedented conditions after World War II, higher education institutions have an important role in rebuilding the post-COVID 19 world. They will provide young people with education and skills that prepare them for democratic citizenship and new careers, while also driving innovation and economic development. In many communities, colleges and universities are anchors of employment, offering stable jobs with benefits to thousands of workers. And they breathe life into our diverse social and cultural institutions.
If the government fails to act, universities and colleges will continue to close or scale-back their operations. University teaching and research hospitals will contract; technological experimentation and scientific discovery collapse. Theaters and museums, stadiums and ballfields will go quiet, inhibiting our imaginations and stymieing our understanding of the shared human condition. First generation college students and students of color may see their dreams evaporate. Many regions across the country will be devastated. We will lose an entire generation of workers and the knowledge-production we need to confront the challenges of the twenty-first century.
The time is now for a bold federal program that will guarantee that all students have equal access to higher education, that our institutions will provide stable employment and living wages for all of their workers, and that our nation’s unparalleled system of higher education thrives.