In the coming days and weeks, the leaders of higher education will announce their decisions about campus life in the fall. College and university campuses provide the perfect environment for the transmission of Covid-19, but projections of massive shortfalls in tuition, public funding, and endowment income tempt leaders of higher education to put financial considerations ahead of public health. Nearly two-thirds of colleges and universities report they will offer in-person instruction in fall 2020, despite mounting objections from faculty and staff and growing concerns about legal liability.
More than three months into a national emergency, neither the leaders of America’s colleges and universities nor our elected officials have offered any plan to uphold higher education or any vision for its future. The ad-hoc responses of individual institutions do not suffice. Without federal relief and concerted reform, our institutions of higher learning cannot lead the nation in confronting Covid-19 and the manifold social crisis it has exposed. As our cities roil in grief and anger over the murder of George Floyd and countless other African American citizens, colleges and universities in the United States must commit to act as a force for justice in a post-pandemic world.
A higher education bailout would encourage decision-makers to put people before revenue and delay in-person instruction until safe vaccines and reliable tests are available universally. The bailout would also spur reforms that are necessary if we hope to conscript colleges and universities fully in the fight against Covid-19. A pandemic relief package would offers an opportunity to renew the mission of higher education: learning, research, and creative expression that advances understanding, addresses our most pressing problems, and betters our future.
We can revitalize higher education and deliver short- and long-term stimulus across the economy by combining $600 billion in federal funding with $1.4 trillion in forgiveness of all outstanding student debt now owned by the federal government:
$600 billion to cover expenses at 2- and 4-year non-profit colleges and universities
Regular instruction should be suspended and tuition eliminated during the 2020–2021 academic year. Current faculty, students, staff, and administrators should be guaranteed a job, working remotely if at all possible.
At present, faculty face keen pressure to redesign curricula in the hopes of stabilizing enrollment. Administrators scramble to develop “new revenue streams” to replace tuition if students do not arrive. Almost daily, university leaders and public officials announce deep cuts to essential services, plans to furlough or to eliminate critical employees, and hiring suspensions that jeopardize the advancement of knowledge.
We must stop rearranging the furniture on the deck of a sinking ship. Faculty and students should design projects that safeguard social reproduction, improve social resilience, and compel social justice. Think research to battle Covid-19, “green” engineering to adapt to climate change, free programs of general education aimed at those socially isolated or marginalized, the organization of safe and equitable structures of care-giving, social inquiry to expose and to excise racism and to repair its malicious legacy, art and theory to make sense of this moment.
Students will receive a generation-shaping experience — much like the Civilian Conservation Corps or Peace Corps — instead of a diminished one that endangers their health and that of the community. They will work and learn (virtually) alongside thousands of new positions that colleges and universities could create, in a kind of experimental jobs-program that would move us closer to a universal employment guarantee.
The receipt of bailout funds should be made conditional upon improvements for the instructors who perform most undergraduate teaching — adjuncts and graduate students — and upon the recognition of their efforts to unionize. Similarly, recipient institutions should be required to comply with principles of racial and gender equity.
Any college or university that receives bailout funds also would be subject to caps on top salaries, reductions in overhead, and stipulations that funds directly support learning, research, and creative practice (much like corporations that received bailouts were asked to suspend dividend payments, share buybacks, and executive bonuses). At the least, we can halt administrators’ grandiose schemes of “revenue-stream diversification” that stray from our true purpose. We can restore norms of deeply-engaged pedagogy and faculty governance. For decades, these norms have eroded as Wall Street and corporate America infiltrated higher education.
As an added benefit, the bail-out would help university research labs resist a deeper embrace from Big Pharma. Clearly, the current funding model does little to ensure ample stockpiles of low-margin public health basics such as vaccines, tests, and PPE.
Well-resourced private colleges and universities can fund such projects (and much else) on their own dime. And they should. It’s no excuse that they suffered investment losses because they managed their endowments as if they were hedge or private equity funds.
Forgiveness of the $1.5 trillion in student debt owned by the federal government
If the federal government forgave the $1.5 trillion in student debt that it now holds, it would help over 44 million Americans to buy homes, start businesses, change jobs, pursue an advanced degree, or save for their children’s college or for their own retirement. The value of the forgiven principal — and interest payments — would flow into the economy across all sectors, not just higher education.
Keep in mind that student debt reinforces the racial wealth gap and disproportionately burdens women. The forgiveness of student debt — the largest category of consumer debt — would be a first step towards a broader program of debt relief and the establishment of a universal right to free higher education.
At every level, public and private colleges and universities enrich the economy and local communities as employers, consumers, and investors (through endowments and pension funds). Ever since the establishment of land-grant colleges in the late nineteenth century, higher education has nourished the scientific discovery, technological innovation, and creative production upon which our economy depends.
Government support — loans and grants to students and to institutions, research funds, contracts, and tax-exempt status — helped to finance these accomplishments. It carried higher education through national calamities.
Remember that during the Great Depression and Second World War, federal funding sustained university-based research and engineering that helped defeat the Axis powers, along with magnificent projects of artistic expression and social knowledge-gathering. Many colleges and universities responded to plunging enrollments by doing the unthinkable: they admitted women for the first time. In the postwar period, colleges and universities cracked open their doors to African Americans who sought education and employment (in part because institutions receiving federal funds were prohibited from discrimination). Undergraduate and graduate degrees provided tickets to upward mobility and social incorporation for millions, across the country and around the world.
Institutions of higher learning exist to provide society with bold ideas, deep questions, transformative discoveries, creative break-throughs, and incisive if uncomfortable criticism. We teach the next generation to surpass us in doing the same. Higher education changes lives. And it changes history by nourishing collective deliberation and action that moves us closer to a just society.
Julia Ott, PhD, is an associate professor of history and director of the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at The New School, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, and a New America New Arizona Fellow.