Higher Education Is Under Pressure

April 24, 2020 | Volume 51, Number 9

Amid concerns about the slow pace of getting federal aid to college campuses and the lack of specifics about how the nearly $14 billion in aid could be used, the U.S. Department of Education in April announced that it was quickly making available the $6.2 billion for institutions to ensure learning continues. The funding is through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund authorized by the nearly $31 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Institutions can use their allocated funds to expand remote learning programs, build IT capacity, and train faculty and staff in remote learning.

The department earlier released $6.28 billion in funding for direct grants to students. For instance, of the total $63.5 million allocation for Arizona State University, $31.8 million was the minimum allocations to be used for awards to students.

Prior to the April 21 announcement of the release of institutional funds, about 50% of eligible postsecondary institutions had applied to receive the emergency grants for students. Funding was allocated based on a Pell-eligible student formula. Within days of the original announcement about aid to postsecondary institutions and students, the American Council on Education, acting on behalf of 40 higher education groups, argued that because state support likely would be reduced, the baseline of federal aid should be $46.6 billion.

Budgets Pressured

States allocated 5% more spending on higher education in this academic year ($96.6 billion) than they did in 2019, the biggest annual increase in five years, according to data from the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

The COVID-19 impact almost immediately upset fiscal plans and the market free-fall tested institutional endowments.

Physical campuses were shuttered, generating new challenges: abrupt moves online with new expectations for instructors and students; changes in institutional spending; and preparing for an uncertain future: whether campuses will be open in the fall or learning will take place remotely and how many students will enroll.

The University of Nebraska faced a revenue shortfall of $50 million because of housing refunds, athletic and event cancellations, and frontline health-care costs. The university implemented a hiring freeze, told campuses to reduce spending by 3% in the quarter ending June 30, limited travel and is reviewing capital construction projects.

Northwestern University refunded $25 million in revenue from room and board and student fees in the spring quarter and used emergency federal funds to provide more than $1.5 million for student travel and technology needs as classes moved to remote learning. Northwestern’s president Martin Shapiro said a return to campus instruction in the summer and fall is not guaranteed.


The university systems in California, the largest in the country, set an example of how campuses are coping. As of mid-April, all California campuses closed for most in-person instruction until the end of the school year. Undergraduate courses at all University of California undergraduate and the 23 California State University campuses moved to remote modes. Simulation software is being explored for labs and in-person training.

Grading also has changed with pass/fail options and course re-takes made available.

Elsewhere, Grand Rapids Community College (MI) waived fees for summer classes in both the seven-week and 14-week terms, though tuition will be charged. Free shipping will be provided for textbooks and course materials. Courses beginning May 11 will be held remotely. The college will decide by May 22 if it will shift to remote learning for the term beginning June 30.


Acadeum (Austin, TX), which helps institutions exchange courses to fill excess capacity and meet student demand, in April organized a coalition of 19 universities into the Higher Education Course Recovery Consortium to offer discounted open spots in online courses. More than 1 million seats were available through the end of 2020 in accredited online courses.

Coursera (Mountain View, CA) in April launched CourseMatch, a machine learning solution that ingests a college’s on-campus course catalogue and matches each course to the most relevant course in Coursera’s catalogue of 3,800 courses.

Impacted institutions have free access until July 31 to Coursera for Campus through which they can sign up to provide their enrolled students access to courses from Coursera’s university and industry partners. After July 31, Coursera plans to provide month-to-month extensions depending on conditions.


For fall 2020,California college administrators anticipate resuming on-campus classes in the fall. That is not certain; no predictions were made about summer sessions.

Students seeking admission to the California system campuses will not have to submit SAT or ACT scores for admission for terms in the 2021-2022 academic year.

At Purdue University, president Mitchell Daniels Jr. said in April the university “intends to accept students on campus in typical numbers this fall, sober about the certain problems that the COVID-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively.”

Among precautions the campus intends to take if it does reopen are: appropriate social distancing, particularly of different age groups; spreading out classes across days and times to reduce their size; more use of online instruction for on-campus students; virtualizing laboratory work; and similar steps.

Also, the university is considering pre-testing students and staff before arrival in August, for both infection and post-infection immunity through antibodies.

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