Pandemic relief bill 'doesn't go far enough' for higher education

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The COVID-19 relief bill signed by President Donald Trump on Sunday will give higher education institutions nearly $23 billion, but the funding falls almost $100 billion shy of what some policy experts say those institutions need to recover.

The measure will provide $900 billion in government funding and pandemic aid, which will be available to publicly funded universities and colleges and not-for-profit private institutions. Those that need financial assistance most will be able to use the funding for lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses, technology costs due to the shift to online learning and financial aid for students.

But the latest round of funding will do little to ensure the long-term welfare of institutions, said Thomas Harnisch, vice president of government relations for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

“The overall funding levels to institutions and states to deal with the pandemic were insufficient,” Harnisch told EdScoop. “The higher education community had requested $120 billion for higher education to help cover the costs related to the pandemic.”

Bad news

And though Harnisch said the relief will certainly help colleges and universities at a time when they need it most, the amount won’t be enough for them to stabilize themselves from the financial blow caused by the pandemic.

“It’s really unprecedented, the financial stress that institutions are under with losses in auxiliary revenues, increased student need, unanticipated expenses and state budget cuts,” he said. “And while it’s important that this bill passed, it doesn’t go far enough.”

Institutions will likely go through the stimulus money rather quickly, said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at the think tank New America. Universities must make up for lost revenue from shrinking enrollment numbers and forgone housing fees, she said, as well as cover the many expenses that came with moving classes online, investing in personal technology for students and outfitting campuses with all the safety features needed to resume some in-person classes.

“We’re likely to see the ramifications of the pandemic on colleges lasting a lot longer than the money does,” McCann told EdScoop.

The relief bill also doesn’t provide any money to states for education, which will strain those governments as they craft their budgets for next year, Harnisch said.

“We’re looking at collectively $450 billion or more in state budget shortfalls, and higher education will be the most vulnerable items in state budgets in the months ahead,” he said.

Good news

But the new bill may not be all bad news for higher education. Unlike the CARES Act, the new bill does not include aid to for-profit institutions, except to provide emergency grants to their students, and the formula used to calculate how much money an institution will get has been improved to better recognize financial losses, which means that the money can go the colleges and universities with the greatest financial need, McCann said.

The guidelines on how institutions can use the second round of funding also appear to be more flexible than those in the CARES Act, giving institutions greater discretion on how they can use the money, McCann said.

“A lot of the implementation is still left up to the Education Department to clarify,” she said, “but in general, this is pretty flexible money.”

Ensuring access

The bill also included $7 billion to expand broadband access for students, families and unemployed workers.

“[Broadband] is an important higher education issue especially for low-income students and students from rural communities,” Harnisch said. “The digital divide has really come to the surface with the shift to online education since the pandemic started.”

According to recent report from the educational technology advocacy group Funds For Learning, 7.15 million families do not have home internet access, which has become a growing concern for educators and lawmakers as classes are delivered online during the pandemic. The new funding for broadband will go a long way to ensuring students can succeed in their educations, McCann said.

But higher education will need more help if it is to recover from the challenges of the pandemic, Harnisch said.

“Certainly institutions are going to be pushing for increased funding to help cover the financial effects of the pandemic,” he said, “and we’re hopeful that the Biden administration and Congress will come together on another relief package in 2021.”

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