What’s Clearer Now

The New View, a Month In

In the midst of stay-at-home orders, coronavirus marketing emails from every online store you gave a dollar to, and doing your civic duty by ordering more take-out, the days all start running together. Sometimes, it feels like we’re losing our bearings.

So this week we asked our contributors and some other fellow journalists to take a breath and tell us what they see more clearly now — a month into this crisis.

Our modern higher-ed system has weathered recessions, but it’s never faced an economic depression. Paul Fain, the news editor at Inside Higher Ed, wonders about the impact of such sky-high unemployment rates. “If we’re looking at over 30 percent in many states, what does that mean for colleges? We don’t know, because it hasn’t happened in a century.”

The value of a college degree is suddenly in question, says Zipporah Osei, a Northeastern University senior who writes First Gen. She feels fortunate that she has a fellowship lined up, but the future feels a lot murkier. “I came into college with the idea that getting a degree would drastically improve my chances of finding a job,” she says. “It’s starting to feel like even having a degree won’t save me, let alone a degree that’s ending feels fudged because of how much things have changed in the last few weeks.”

Never mind the technology, trying to learn from home itself is a big challenge for students. Benjy Renton, a student and editor at large at The Middlebury Campus, says we’re just beginning to understand how disruptive home environments can be to learning. Some students lack access to the Internet or books. Others have new responsibilities to help family or do house chores. Even time-zone differences between campus and home create more trouble than you’d imagine.

What this whole experience points out is that what happens in the classroom may be the least important part of what goes on at college, says Jeff Young, a senior editor at EdSurge. Students are talking a lot about activities they’re in, the sports seasons they’re missing, and the friends they’re separated from. Re-creating any of that online — through Zoom or by building campus replicas in Minecraft — is merely a token, Jeff says, until physical campuses can re-open.

We now understand that this is seismic. Karin Fischer, who writes latitude(s), has been on the coronavirus beat longer than most — since mid-January, when news hit about the outbreak in Wuhan, China. “At first, it seemed to be a somewhat contained and isolated event — another hiccup for international enrollments, a headache for colleges working in China,” she says. “Then it became clear that today’s globalized campuses could be a vector for infections spreading within the United States. Now, nearly every institution in the country has moved to online instruction, the shape of next year’s freshman class is murky, and higher ed itself — at least in its current 4,000-college, human-capital-intensive form — could be threatened.”

This all lays bare our societal divides — and will make them worse. Karin, Paul, and Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, all made this point: This global pandemic will not impact students or colleges equally. Lower-income students and families — and lower-resourced institutions — will only fall further behind, and faster.

It’s important to move fast, really fast, Paul adds. Drop your previous plans now. Figure out how to survive in a changed environment. “That calculus applies to all organizations, really,” he says. “Even ours.”

— Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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Where the Relief Money is Headed

Nearly everyone in higher ed agrees that the $14-billion going to colleges and universities from the federal relief package won’t be close to filling the gaping financial holes. But where is this first round of money likely to be headed? The law allocates the money not simply based on total enrollment, but tilted in favor of institutions that have many Pell Grant recipients.

The American Council on Education conducted a simulation earlier this week to make a preliminary estimate of how much each institution would get.

We made a searchable database to explore those estimates.

  • The top three institutions — the University of Central Florida, Cal State-Northridge, and Miami Dade College — are each set to get more than $47-million.
Top five states for higher-ed relief money based on ACE estimates

And this chart lets you see the numbers broken down by state and type of institution.

  • More than a fifth of the money goes to institutions in just two states — California and Texas. They also enroll more than 1 in 5 Pell recipients in the nation.

Less CARE for College Students

Isabella O’Connor, a University of Iowa freshman

When Isabella O’Connor learned she lost her job at an Iowa City restaurant as businesses cut back amid the coronavirus, she thought she could at least count on some money from the recently approved CARES Act.

Then the University of Iowa freshman discovered an unfortunate truth — like many college students, she’s largely left out of the federal relief bill.

  • She doesn’t get one of the $1,200 checks because she files taxes as a dependent.
  • Nor do her parents get the $500 child benefit because she’s older than 17.

It gets worse: O’Connor then discovered she’s not eligible for unemployment because her waitressing job lasted less than five months — a common situation for many college students who work short-term jobs.

There was some good news, shortly after her tweet about the situation went viral, the University of Iowa announced it would partially refund room and board fees. She’ll get about $2,000 back.

Meanwhile, she’s applied to five local grocery stores and other jobs to make money, but isn’t hopeful. A Whole Foods interviewer was disappointed to learn that, once the fall semester started, she wouldn’t be around to work.

To pay for next semester, O’Connor will likely need to take out a larger loan to cover her expenses, but she said she’s lucky that’s all she needs to worry about at the moment since her mom and step-dad are still being paid to work as teachers.

She’s more concerned for her older sister, a junior at Iowa who pays all of her own expenses and was laid off from her local bartending job. Even though she qualified for unemployment, tips aren’t factored in, so she’ll make about $100 a week and already fell behind on her rent.

“It’s just scary,” she said, “and no one knows what’s next.”

— Andrea Klick

What You Don’t Hear About the Morrill Act

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

The law that gave birth to America’s land-grant colleges is often celebrated for bringing liberal and practical education to the masses. What the heralded story of that law, the Morrill Act, often leaves out is the focus of a data-rich, investigative story published this week in High Country News.

The story details how the federal government, through the 1862 law, turned nearly 11 million acres of expropriated Indigenous land into seed money for higher education, funding endowments for 52 institutions.

The land, taken from almost 250 tribes, bands, and communities, was broken up into almost 80,000 parcels. High Country News spent the past two years locating those parcels, identifying their original Indigenous inhabitants and caretakers, and researching the principal raised from their sale. The full database is publicly available.

Open Secrets

The authors say their story helps reveal open secrets and correct common misconceptions about the origin story of land-grant universities — and how those institutions still benefit. Among those:

  • All money made from land sales under the Morrill Act must be used in perpetuity, meaning those funds still remain on university ledgers today.
  • At least a dozen states are still in possession of unsold Morrill Act acres and associated mineral rights, which continue to produce revenue for their designated institutions.
  • Morrill Act land that many individual colleges benefit from is located hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the institution itself.

A Conspicuous Absence

Robert Lee, a lecturer in American history at the University of Cambridge and one of the story’s authors, says these holes in knowledge are conspicuous amid the lofty celebrations that tend to mark events associated with the Morrill Act and its major anniversaries.

What’s really struck him is this: Much of the history of the Morrill Act is well known. And much of the history of the dispossession of Indigenous lands is well known. But for some reason those two histories haven’t been integrated, he says, not in scholarship nor in public memory.

He hopes his work will help change that, and prompt people to come to grips with the problem. Universities might consider redirecting income they still receive from Morrill Act parcels to helping American Indian students (something South Dakota State University, for example, has done). Or, build conferences or courses around this history.

Mostly, Lee wants more people to be telling this story, digging into their own archives and local histories. There’s a lot more research to be done about how this played out on the ground, he says. “We’re just providing the bird’s eye view.”

— Sara Hebel

Keep In Touch

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