Colleges and universities are asking congressional leaders to appropriate $120 billion toward higher education to offset "massive new expenses" because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"The situation currently facing America's colleges and universities is a crisis of almost unimaginable magnitude," said a letter signed by Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, on behalf of dozens of higher education groups. "Colleges and universities have already pushed their financial capacities to the limits in addressing this crisis."
Mitchell described the efforts by colleges and universities to adapt to the crisis as Herculean "... so that we can educate our students safely, conduct critical research, protect our workforces and support our communities."
But the protracted health crisis has increased costs above expectations, he wrote.
"These efforts have been consistently hampered by the shifting public health situation and, most importantly, by a significant decline in the resources available to institutions coupled with the massive new expenses campuses are incurring," he wrote.
Those expenses include moving classes online and adopting new techniques and technology. Keeping the campus community at safe distance from one another requires additional space and costs. Personal protection equipment (PPE) also has added to college and university budgets.
Lack of a unified approach
In addition to testing wastewater to assess the rate of COVID-19 infection and detect outbreaks, many schools have been testing their students for the coronavirus regularly to try to keep the infection rate down.
"In July, our institutions anticipated spending an average of $3,791,678 on testing costs," he wrote. "Now, well into the 2020-2021 academic year, campuses are reporting spending $9,362,967 on average, or nearly three times that amount."
The cost of regular and repeated testing has been complicated "by the lack of consistent and comprehensive national testing policies," Mitchell wrote.
The lack of a unified approach was evidenced on campuses last March and April, as many schools moved classes online. Many schools asked students to return home, then come back to retrieve their things, then asked to return home.
Students and families pushed back, asking for discounts because of reduced services. Other revenue was lost as sports and other events were canceled.
Many international students, who typically pay full tuition and fees for higher education in the U.S., deferred their enrollments in the 2020-21 academic year, further adding to the financial toll on colleges and universities. The pandemic arrived after three years of declining international student enrollment tied to costs, immigration barriers and perceived chaos in American society.
In the school year that began four months ago, new enrollment of international students dropped 43% because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 40,000 students - mostly incoming freshmen - deferred enrollment to a future term at 90% of U.S. institutions, according to a survey released in November by nearly a dozen major higher education organizations.
The letter by the higher education groups, released Thursday, said federal support from the CARES Act "was vital to keeping students enrolled and colleges running in the spring," but financial stress has grown and the impact of the global pandemic far exceeds the industry's predictions.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that was passed March 27 provided $14.25 billion for emergency relief to institutions of higher education. Half of those funds were required to go to students as emergency aid.
Little hope for a quick rebound
Mitchell cited a study by the American College Health Association and the Healthy Minds Network in which more than 63% of college students said they experienced financial losses directly or within their families because of the pandemic.
He pointed, too, to research in the Journal of Public Economics in November that found "lower-income students are 55% more likely than their higher-income peers to have delayed graduation due to COVID-19."
Working students, the research said, saw a 31% decrease in wages and a 37% drop in weekly hours worked, on average.
"Moreover, around 40% of students lost a job, internship, or a job offer, and 61% reported to have a family member that experienced a reduction in income," he wrote.
Enrollment of all freshmen students at all institutions has dropped 13%, and nearly 19% at community colleges, including "a concentration of losses on Black and Latino males," Mitchell wrote. Black student enrollment declined by 8%, the letter to Congress said.
"There is little hope for a quick rebound, as next year looks to be even worse based on initial data," Mitchell concluded.
Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 321,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on college campuses and at least 80 deaths, according to New York Times data from more than 1,900 U.S. colleges and universities.