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 revealed deeper, decades-long patterns of underinvestment and poor corporate management hobbling colleges and universities. Higher education leaders have responded to the current crisis by pursuing 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 by administrators 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 past year of crisis also revealed the equally deep race and class inequities long stalking 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 deteriorate drastically.
Without immediate and sustained political 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 innovation, prosperity, and democracy.
A New Deal for Higher Education contends that our nation’s colleges and universities are uniquely positioned at this moment of crisis to reinvigorate American democracy and extend the promise of full equity and access for 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.
We need a unified commitment to rebuild America’s institutions for the benefit of everyone. Higher education institutions 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 federal 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 new federal program that re-envisions higher education as a public good that also serves the public good. The federal government must 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.