(The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert)

‘Rome Is Really Burning’

David Baime has a lot of worries right now. About whether large numbers of low-income students are going to be left out of federal emergency aid (and whether they’ll now have to fill out federal financial aid forms to be able to get it). About how well his community colleges can help students enrolled in no-credit programs or the people whose financial circumstances have just recently changed.

Here’s what he’s not worried about: Harvard.

Or Stanford. Or Princeton. Or Yale. Or whether or not they take their share of federal CARES Act money.

(They’re not, after being chastised this week by President Trump and Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.)

Sure, community colleges and their students do have great needs. Sure, there are inequities in the system, says Baime, the senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.

“But, Rome is really burning,” he says.

“This is maybe not the right time to start questioning the differential distribution of higher education resources across different types of institutions. It distracts attention from much more important issues.”

A Tiny Sliver of Budgets

Pretty much everyone in higher education knows this money is peanuts when compared with the giant financial holes colleges are facing.

How little is it really? Billions, millions — these big numbers can be hard to keep in perspective. Here’s one way:

Harvard spends $5.2 billion a year. So if you imagine the university spending evenly throughout the year, then this $8.6 million it could have gotten from the CARES Act is what gets spent by early afternoon on January 1st.

Plus, who else does the education secretary think is too wealthy to accept this money? Northwestern? Vanderbilt? They’ve got big endowments, too.

Isn’t This Supposed To Be About Students?

And, after all of this, here’s another thing: The Education Department is still determining whether the money that these wealthy universities are giving up can even be redistributed to other colleges. Will it help students, anywhere, at all?

Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, says he wished the universities would have stood up to this and taken the money. They could have spent it on their own low-income students and then made donations in a similar amount to help undocumented students somewhere else or to help students at nearby community colleges.

He even drew up some suggested matches:


The fact that DeVos said to return the money without knowing for sure it could go to other students is “incredibly irresponsible,” Miller said. “You can argue about whether or not it’s a good idea to give funds to Harvard or Stanford, but if those dollars might otherwise just disappear back into the Treasury that is a terrible use of them.”

And lest you worry that the coronavirus has changed everything about our world, it’s clearly not easing the partisan divide that’s developed around college.

This is all “culture war demagoguery,” Miller says. “Harvard is the stand-in for perceived liberal colleges, and it’s a chance to take a swipe at them.”

At some point, he says, the headache of fighting another battle in this culture war exceeds the value of the money to these universities. It’s easier for them to give it back.

“It’s just about a prolonged attempt to weaken the public view about a lot of institutions,” Miller says. “It’s about just crafting an us-versus-them narrative, which I think is troubling.”

— Sara Hebel, Andrea Klick, and Scott Smallwood

Sign up to get our weekly email

What We Know About the Fall

After scrambling to pack up their belongings and move back home for the semester, students are anxious to hear if they’ll return to campus in the fall or continue their studies at Zoom University.

Over half of colleges said they’re at least considering moving to online operations in the fall, according to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. But the actual decisions that have been announced so far are all over the map.

With so much confusion around what college could look like next semester, a new study from the American Council on Education and AACRAO found that 12% of students are either uncertain about returning or plan not to because of coronavirus.

Many universities are hoping to keep tuition prices the same even if classes remain online because instructional fees have either gone up or stayed the same. But some students don’t think online learning is worth the price of face-to-face instruction. And some universities are announcing different plans to try to help students financially.

Finding Room To Adapt

The coronavirus has amplified already existing threats to small colleges, and some schools have already shut down. But Joel Recznik, vice president of enrollment management at Franciscan, says being small can be an advantage: He sees it as giving him greater ability to adapt. Here’s his advice to others in his shoes:

Act quickly. High-school seniors have lost their proms and graduations. Making a decision faster restores some certainty in their lives and helps them find a path forward.

Meet students’ needs in many ways. Franciscan created an emergency fund for current students. For those who won’t be able to return to campus, it’s making the option for some undergraduate degrees to be fully online. And it’s giving free graduate school credits to returning students and those graduating this May.

Be who you are. Franciscan’s values revolve around faith, reason, and serving its students. Recznik said now is the time to follow through on your beliefs.

A couple more resources about what the fall might look like:

— Andrea Klick

The State Outlook

Oregon’s State Capitol (Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash)

We’re continuing to keep tabs on what’s happening with public higher ed in every state. Follow along here.

What’s new in our state tracker this week:

  • The University of Michigan’s president said it faces losses of anywhere from $400 million to $1 billion through the end of the calendar year. It’s freezing hiring and salaries, reducing leaders’ pay, creating voluntary furlough programs, and postponing construction.
  • The University of Arizona is putting in place furloughs and pay cuts for nearly all of its employees. They’re set to last through June 2021.
  • With oil prices declining, one Louisiana economist predicts the state will lose up to $20 million a month, making cuts to areas like higher education and healthcare likely.

Stay in Touch

Keep sending us your feedback and ideas. Let us know what kinds of stories, data, and information would help you navigate this time.

And please help us by sharing this newsletter with others who might be interested. They can sign up here.