Until recently, graduate students had generally remained a bright spot in higher education, continuing to show up at colleges and universities and helping institutions balance their books even as undergraduate enrollment dramatically declined. But even before the pandemic, there were signs that the once-reliable flow of graduate students and the money they bring with them was beginning to slow. And now, when that money may be needed most, school leaders and researchers fear that these numbers could plummet.
Though it was immediately trashed by the Senate’s Republican majority as dead on arrival, House Democrats on Tuesday proposed a mammoth fourth stimulus package that would provide the possibility of more money for colleges and universities, specify that undocumented students are eligible for emergency grants, and expand relief for student loan borrowers beyond what was contained in the CARES Act. Lobbyists representing colleges and universities were studying the massive, 1,800-page HEROES Act last evening. But as part of the $3 trillion package, House Democrats proposed giving states the $500 billion in aid governors have asked for to deal with the financial fallout of the pandemic. Colleges and universities had supported the aid in the hopes of softening state funding cuts to higher education as they try to fill billions of dollars in budget shortfall.
Some are already reporting massive losses for community services such as public transportation and freezes on projects including hospital expansions. In Athens, Ohio, home of Ohio University, businesses, including iconic ones remembered with nostalgia by generations of students, said in a survey in early April that they couldn’t hold out beyond a few more months. The fiscal fates of colleges and college towns are closely intertwined, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, a research center focused on school finance. Municipal agencies can’t easily scale up or down based on population changes, Roza said. “The college town doesn’t have the same scope or capacity without the college.”
By the end of 2019, there was $128 billion in private student loans, which was higher than total debt for payday loans and past-due medical debt. The total for federal and private student loan debt is about $1.6 trillion. And if the coronavirus pandemic has decreased a student’s income and made paying back private loans nearly impossible, there is no federal help. By contrast, for student loans held by the federal government, borrowers don’t have to pay until Sept. 30, and the interest is zero until that date. In the 2018-2019 school year, about 12 percent of student loans were not federal, according to a report from the College Board.
This year’s high school seniors have lost out on prom, graduations and other highly anticipated events. For some, the coronavirus pandemic has totally upended their plans for the foreseeable future, as family income is threatened and as some campuses remain closed for the fall. Liz Willen is editor-in-chief of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization that covers K-12 and post-secondary education. In recent weeks, Willen has been speaking with seniors and their families to learn more about their decision-making process while keeping a close eye on the schools rapidly changing responses.
In Indiana, with schools across the state shut down, high school senior Brandon Gater queues for a temperature check on his way to carpentry work at an expansion in progress at the Lutheran Hospital in downtown Fort Wayne. In Lexington, Massachusetts, senior Robbie Finnegan coordinates with homeowners by phone to maintain a safe distance as he checks their solar panels outside. And in nearby Worcester, freshman Andrew Stanley readies a tissue sample slide for analysis, unmasked but sanitized in a pathology lab.
Colleges are bracing for a decline in enrollment next year as the coronavirus prompts high school seniors to reconsider their plans for the fall. In recent surveys, graduating seniors have balked at choosing colleges that are canceling campus tours, moving classes online or charging more than their families can now afford. That final reason will weigh most heavily on students who lack access to financial aid, and its impact may persist well beyond states’ lockdown orders. Coronavirus could depress college enrollments, because applications for financial aid may fall as the need for financial aid rises.
Sticker prices at most, if not all, colleges and universities in the country have increased since the mid-1990s, and some have increased dramatically. But financial aid assistance for low- and middle-income students generally has kept pace with these rising costs, according to a new report from the American Enterprise Institute. The report, “Evidence Against the Free-College Agenda: An Analysis of Prices, Financial Aid and Affordability at Public Universities,” argues that free tuition programs at four-year institutions wouldn’t be helpful to the neediest students. Instead, policy makers should be looking at living expenses.
While emergency grants for colleges and their students from the CARES Act have gotten much attention in the past few weeks, that funding isn’t the only stream of new federal money headed for higher education. The U.S. Department of Education also is planning to distribute $127.5 million as part of its Reimagining Workforce Preparation grant program. But the department so far has released scant information about what sort of programs the grants should be used to fund, and through what sort of institutions.
Nine states and the District have reached agreements with student loan companies to provide residents relief during the health crisis, offering a lifeline to millions of people with debt held by private outfits. A dozen loan servicing companies, including Navient, Nelnet and Aspire, will let borrowers postpone their payments for three months without the threat of late fees or negative impacts on their credit ratings. The companies also will hold off on filing debt collection lawsuits during that time and help eligible borrowers enroll in payment plans tied to their income.
State funding for higher education remains below pre-recession levels and will likely stay that way, a new report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers association shows. The fiscal 2019 State Higher Education Finance report was well underway before the coronavirus pandemic tore through higher education budgets. But Sophia Laderman, senior policy analyst at SHEEO and lead author of the report, considers it a useful tool as higher education braces for a recession.
Missouri lawmakers on Friday passed a stripped-down budget for the upcoming fiscal year amid a steep drop in revenues because of the havoc the coronavirus has wreaked on the economy. Lawmakers managed to spare public K-12 schools and colleges and universities from major cuts in the final version of the budget. But spending for many new government programs is gone, and state agencies face close to $160 million in core budget cuts. It’s unclear if $700 million in planned cuts to the original budget draft will even be enough, said Sen. Dan Hegeman, the Senate’s budget leader.