When the COVID-19 pandemic and recession started, state higher education budgets still had not recovered from the cuts enacted during the Great Recession. For over a decade, public higher education institutions have been underfunded and relying on increased tuition to make up for budget shortfalls. COVID-19 is only exacerbating this trend, which has driven the student debt crisis and made higher education less accessible and more unequal for students, faculty, and staff alike. Further federal investment in higher education is necessary to help colleges and universities weather the current storm, but these funds must come with conditions that reform higher education institutions so that they once again serve as the engines of mobility Americans expect them to be.
In “A True New Deal for Higher Education,” Suzanne Kahn, Director of Roosevelt’s Education, Jobs and Worker Power Program; and Professors Jennifer Mittlstadt and Lisa Levenstein from Scholars for a New Deal in Higher Education argue that higher education institutions urgently need more federal funding. The CARES Act included $14 billion for higher education, the largest direct federal infusion of cash into colleges and universities since the Great Recession. Yet this sum amounted to only a small amount of what was needed. Indeed, the sector as a whole received $10 billion less than the airline industry, which employs only one-sixth the number of workers. Facing tremendous budget shortfalls, higher education institutions have begun to cut staff, close departments, and raise tuition, among other practices that drive inequitable outcomes for students and communities.
Kahn, Mittlestadt, and Levenstein not only argue for a new infusion of federal funding, but also insist that future federal funding for higher ed must be designed to help enact progressive priorities: moving the higher education system toward universal accessibility, remediating racial inequalities in the system, improving labor practices, and creating more stable and equitable streams of funding.