Existential Threat: Public Colleges and Universities

The semester is rolling to a close, and one thing is certain: 2020 has been a devastating year for public higher education. As someone with a nearly twenty-year career as a college instructor, and a faculty affiliate position at the College of Charleston with lots of friends and former colleagues on the front lines, I’ve seen the amazing effort that faculty, staff, and students are putting in to try to soldier through the problems.

It’s been grueling, and there are even more difficult times ahead, even after the virus is under control. As we’re seeing with other systems, COVID has exposed and exacerbated already-existing problems in education that are both deep and far-reaching.


COVID impact

During COVID, every source of institutional revenue has been hit simultaneously.

  • Enrollment is down.
  • Other sources of revenue, such as dining and housing, have been hit by the need to operate at reduced capacity or to implement distance learning entirely.
  • Operating costs are up as schools engage in coronavirus risk mitigation protocols.
  • State budgets have been decimated by the pandemic-related downturn, resulting in mid-year institutional budget cuts that will probably be followed by even larger cuts down the line.
  • Philanthropic and alumni giving will likely be negatively affected by the recession.

Initial emergency funding from the CARES act has helped some, but not enough.

While some schools – most notably the University of Illinois – have managed to institute testing, tracing, and quarantine programs that have allowed them to operate without massive outbreaks, others have struggled. The University of North Carolina held a single week of classes before pivoting to all online instruction amidst an instant spike of positive cases and with no capacity to quarantine students.

Other institutions have plowed through mounting infections. The New York Times has tracked over 320,000 cases across more than 1,700 colleges. This is almost certainly an undercount, as many students hesitate to get tested for fear of sanction or restriction. Hundreds of thousands of students (or more!) just left campus and returned home for Thanksgiving, the overwhelming number of which were not tested, potentially seeding even more virus around the country.

The toll of all this disruption has been considerable. Faculty who have been required to pivot courses to new platforms – in many cases being required to teach simultaneously in-person, live online (a mode known as HyFlex), and asynchronously online – are experiencing “chronic” pandemic stress.

Staff are also struggling under increased demands while working with fewer resources, and some staff are living on reduced salaries through emergency furloughs.

Students report being more anxious, more depressed, and more sedentary during the pandemic. Additionally, research from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice shows that nearly 3 in 5 students are experiencing some level of basic needs insecurity (housing, food) during the pandemic.


Longstanding problems

Of course, the problems facing higher ed are not new.

All of this is happening after we just experienced a “lost decade” in higher education funding following the 2008 recession. State spending on public colleges and universities reached an all-time low and had barely climbed above that nadir at the time the pandemic hit.

Public colleges and universities have been struggling against increasing austerity for decades. While there is a popular belief that institutions are getting fat and happy on increased tuition, the reality is that they’ve steadily been starved by declining public support.

Fifty years ago public colleges and universities were overwhelmingly funded by state appropriations. Today, the vast majority of public post-secondary institutions are tuition-dependent, living hand-to-mouth, semester-to-semester.

As an illustrative example, in 1970, 78% of the University of Michigan Budget was funded by the state, with 21% of the budget coming from tuition and fees. By 1991, state funds and student tuition each contributed around 45% to the budget. Now, the situation has reversed, with student tuition funding 73% of the university budget, state appropriations 14%.

This pattern has played out around the country, and it is why colleges and universities are unable to absorb the shock of the downturn. Bryan Alexander, a futurist who specializes in higher education put it starkly, “We’re out of fat. We’re cutting sinew, muscle bone.” He foresees schools dropping programs, merging, even closing.


Need for a sustainable approach to financing public higher ed

What can be done about this, both short term and long term?

Short term, there is an interesting and perhaps surprising development around student loan debt that may help reset the conversation around colleges and universities, particularly our public colleges and universities. Senator Chuck Schumer has proposed that the Biden Administration cancel $50,000 worth of debt for all borrowers.

Research from the Levy Economics Institute shows that debt cancellation would create a macroeconomic stimulus by relieving a burden that prevents debt holders from having children, buying homes, and starting businesses.

However, debt cancellation does not solve the underlying problem in public higher ed. Like so many things, COVID has both revealed and exacerbated longstanding problems, with how we finance public higher ed being an object example.

If we believe in public higher education, we must work towards a sustainable approach to financing public higher ed that truly reflects our commitment to these institutions and their students. For interested readers, I just published a book which lays out my personal vision on how to put our public post-secondary education institutions on a sustainable future path.


Calling for a new narrative

In addition to the funding crisis, perhaps not coincidentally, we find ourselves at a low point in terms of public belief in our higher education institutions.

As post-secondary education has increasingly become viewed as a private good with benefits accruing to the individual, positive public sentiment towards educational institutions has declined.

According to Gallup polls, between 2013 and 2019, the percentage of adults who agreed that college is “very important” declined from 70% to 51%. Among the youngest cohort, adults aged eighteen to twenty-nine, the decline was even greater, from 74% to 41%.


We are also navigating a partisan divide when it comes to views of higher education. According to Pew research from 2019, a sizeable majority (59%) of Republicans have a negative view of colleges and universities while two-thirds of Democrats (67%) have a positive view.

This suggests that public higher ed may face some serious resistance to any efforts to solve their funding problems.

Yet, 2020 has upended many of our cultural narratives. Stories that we thought were fixed are suddenly in flux.

Like any crisis, COVID provides an opportunity for higher ed. Short term, this should provide a window for post-secondary institutions to renew their messaging around education as a public good worth supporting with public funds. So much of the conversation seems to center on elite institutions which educate relatively few, when in reality, public institutions serve as hubs of innovation, and economic, social, technologic, and artistic activity in communities across the country.

In order to secure its place in the world, we believe that higher ed needs to reclaim the narrative, by telling the story of the central role that it serves in our collective infrastructure.

With this in mind, Willow has created a suite of research-backed solutions to help higher ed institutions identify the stories that will resonate with its constituents, driving engagement and improving public support for these critical institutions. For more information, please contact me at (312) 767-9414, or at John@willowresearch.com

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