America’s colleges and universities continue to grapple with the economic fallout from COVID-19. Many schools have already commenced hiring freezes, layoffs, and furloughs as they face the prolonged threat of diminishing revenues and state budget cuts. The result could likely be compromised quality and a painful surge of college closures, which is why Congress must act swiftly to protect students, faculty, and staff to stabilize higher education budgets.
Surveys suggest that nearly 1 in 5 high school seniors are unlikely to attend college in the fall due to COVID-19. Not only will enrollment declines lead to an estimated $23 billion, but higher education institutions can also expect a 25% decline from auxiliary revenues, which include fees from athletic events, residence halls, conferences, and summer camps. An erosion of state support will put further pressure on public colleges and universities, as states grapple with skyrocketing unemployment claims, declining tax revenues, and ballooning public health expenditures. Together, these declines will prevent many higher education institutions from the ability to operate and perform key functions, undermining quality and increasing the risk of closure.
Although our nation’s governors have asked for additional increased federal support, this faces some opposition in Congress, a situation that brings to mind lessons learned from the Great Recession over a decade ago. At the time, there was initial hesitation among lawmakers to include state K-12 and higher education support in the stimulus package, but lawmakers did eventually provide over $100 billion in educational support. However, this sum was insufficient at preventing a 24% cut in per-student funding for higher education, from which many states still haven’t recovered. COVID-19 has already proven more painful than the Great Recession, meaning that K-12 schools, colleges, and universities should brace themselves for increasingly dire cuts unless the federal government takes further action as it did in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, 2010, and 2011.
In a worst-case scenario, massive declines in revenue and state support will overwhelm institutions and lead to a wave of college closures, throwing students’ futures into disarray and leading to more job losses among teachers, faculty, and staff. This would have devastating consequences for the entire U.S. public education system, with college becoming even less affordable and accessible for students, while simultaneously hampering academic quality.
The American higher education system has long been considered the best in the world, but its continued prominence is not a foregone conclusion. Lawmakers must take action to support K-12 students and colleges and universities as they navigate the greatest crisis of our lifetime. Only then will educational institutions be able to continue fulfilling their vital mission as engines of social and economic mobility.
F. King Alexander is the president of Oregon State University and was previously president of Louisiana State University. He serves on the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Higher Education Financing and Student Outcomes.