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The spread of Covid through our universities has several implications in addition to the life-threatening effects of the virus itself. College campuses are experimenting with various methods of teaching, housing, and addressing Covid in their student and staff populations. Because there is no one-size fits all plan, colleges are following the guidelines of their state — or not — to determine the best course of action while trying to stay afloat financially without increasing the virus’ spread. Universities are facing financial strain due to diminished enrollment and inability to sustain typical channels of revenue. On top of that, students’ financial needs are increasing due to the impact of the pandemic on families in general, which is particularly devastating for students who already have greater financial needs.

A recent study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates that undergraduate enrollment for the Fall semester has dropped nearly 3.9 percent, with community colleges and rural universities having the steepest drop. This is concerning with regard to equity and access in higher education, as community colleges serve more low-income and racially diverse student bodies, so a decrease in college enrollment could have long-term effects on Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities. Those who already have financial barriers to college and who aren’t able to access higher education in the coming years could potentially be left out of the changing economy of the future — increasing the wealth gap even further.

Since March 13, there has been a decrease in FAFSA (the federal financial aid program) applications, nearly 100,000 fewer students applied for financial aid, indicating that many low-income students who would have normally applied for aid are opting-out of college this year. Rural and small towns have had the greatest decline in FAFSA applications. Additionally, the US Census Bureau found that students with families making under $75,000 a year were twice as likely to cancel plans to attend college.

With increasing student loan debt over the last decade and dreary projections for universities’ revenue, it is possible that tuition will in fact increase. This possibility is troublesome for rising student debt, leading some universities to take steps to mitigate this effect by freezing tuition so that students can stay enrolled and complete their degrees.

While this is concerning for the future of all students, the financial security of colleges is also at stake. With a decrease in enrollment certainly comes a decrease in tuition — however, as NPR reports, other revenue sources such as campus dorms and sports programs will be absent for many colleges this year, driving further deficits. For example, Syracuse University has already posted losses of $35 million, University of Michigan projects $400 million to $1 billion, and Pennsylvania State University System expects losses of $100 million. Additionally, many small private colleges with small endowments, who traditionally attract first-generation and lower-income students, will be facing deep revenue declines in the coming years, and some have already closed. This will help to fuel the disparity between elite private colleges, and smaller private colleges — leaving students to opt for public university systems or no college at all.

Some colleges are struggling to stay afloat, yet Harvard and its counterparts have recently posted endowment returns in the billions. The cushion that old, private, and capital-rich universities sit on only deepens the divides in the university system, which disproportionately impact less wealthy students.

Over the course of the pandemic, colleges have been making headlines with virus numbers increasing and a rapid spread to the greater local communities. Despite UNC at Chapel Hill shutting down after a week of in-person classes, and universities in Georgia deciding to remain open with thousands of cases throughout the state, other universities such as Cornell and Northeastern are taking precautions so they can remain open or open sooner. Namely, mass testing, diluted dorm rooms, and hybrid classes are keeping the numbers lower, but the struggle to keep infection rate down is ongoing and could change at any moment.

A group of researchers recently estimated that there were 3,200 new Covid college cases per day during the first two weeks of the fall semester. This is alarming because with each new case comes community spread and a chain of virus transmission. Moreover, the impact that small, rural colleges have on the economy of local communities could also be factored into a college’s decision to reopen — many people who rely on students to drive commerce and rent properties will be facing financial strain as long as they stay closed. But allowing students to return has in some cases increased community spread, so there is a delicate balancing act to perform in order to keep everyone safe and financially secure.

With all this in mind, students and families are now considering how much money the traditional college experience is worth. Remote courses might be better for some students and families, but does that mean tuition should decrease to account for the lack of the college experience? Concerns around financial aid will be different this year as well — as the FAFSA will use 2019 tax returns, aid packages won’t consider changes in a family’s situation due to Covid, so there is an extra burden on students and families to navigate more bureaucracy in order to pay for college.

With tuition costs looming over an uncertain financial situation for many students, some student activists are taking action by protesting, filing lawsuits, and threatening a tuition strike. While many colleges aren’t budging, it is notable that Georgetown, Princeton and Northwestern University have responded by reducing fall tuition by 10%.

In a recent letter to the House of Representatives, the American Council on Education on behalf of 45 higher education organizations urged legislators to pass at least $120 billion in aid to higher education in order to “partially mitigate the challenges that students and institutions are facing.” In response to universities’ increase in costs, the $46.6 billion initially requested has proven to be not nearly enough.

A new House Proposal allocates $39 billion for higher education, a far cry from the $120 billion in estimated need. Nevertheless, the bill would disburse $27 billion for public colleges, with states focusing on schools with more Pell Grant recipients to ensure money goes where it is most needed.

With safety at the forefront, colleges have an uncertain path going forward. What is clear is that funding is needed to address the gap in wealth that disproportionately affects individuals from low-income families and colleges that serve low-income communities. Unless there is a concerted effort to save these institutions and encourage students with barriers to entry to still pursue college, we could potentially see the past decades of work to address equity in higher education begin to fall apart.

Resistance Resources:

  • National College Attainment Network — NCAN works to empower communities to close equity gaps in attaining postsecondary education. Visit their advocacy center to write letters to your Congress Members and get informed about relevant state and federal legislature.
  • Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust — This nonprofit works to make affordable college a reality for all students. Check out their action center, their research on college tuition and flow of money, and their database of officials who determine tuition and fees in higher education institutions across America.
  • American Council on Education — A member organization that convenes university leaders across the country, ACE is very involved in federal policy discussions around higher education. They provide a platform for higher education leaders to connect, discuss issues, and take action, in addition to providing detailed resources on higher education policy and activism toolkits.
  • National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators — NASFAA performs research and policy advocacy to remove financial barriers and create equitable access to postsecondary education. Check out their action center to send letters to your senator, share your story as a student or educator, or find out how and where to volunteer to support better access to and more robust funding for college student tuition.

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