Government funds protected universities from extinction. In 2022, bets will change.

At the beginning of what will soon be known around the world as the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders in the higher education sector have begun to fear the worst. Within days, colleges and universities across the country announced their respective continuity plans for the provision of distance learning and student support. Through a range of digital communication technologies, messaging platforms and learning management systems, institutions have been able to continue to operate and maintain their share of the student market.

In honor of the work of several institutions that have successfully reoriented to the online space, NASPA contacted researchers, edts and higher education experts in the fall of 2020, including me, to advise them on what has become the Virtual Innovation Awards: Excellence in Delivering Virtual Student Services. From more than 100 contributions from colleges and universities, NASPA’s team of advisors selected 10 institutions for awards in the following eight categories: Link Building, Holistic Approach, Ingenuity, Focus on Justice, Scalability and Sustainability, Strategic Technology, Collaboration and Data Usage.

The fact is, however, that not every higher education institution has been fortunate enough to show such flexibility. Some began to form under pandemic conditions. And even if those of us who work in institutions that still cling to may be tempted to exhale, that would be a mistake. As I will explain, even award-winning universities are not necessarily safe from the challenges that higher education still faces.

After years of financial struggles, MacMurray College in Illinois announced its imminent closure, followed by Becker College in Massachusetts and Mills College in California. However, Mills has since joined Northeastern University. Such closures, mergers and other shifts in the pursuit of sustainability are reflected in the reports of the National Center for Education Statistics. Since the 2018-2019 school year, the number of institutions eligible for federal financial assistance has dropped from 6,281 to 6,063, or 3.47 percent. In the public two-year university sector, the number of institutions decreased from 963 to 920, ie 4.46 percent. However, it is important to note that the presented NCE data do not fully take into account the number of two-year institutions reclassified due to the offer of bachelor’s programs.

Despite this unfortunate reality, financial experts predicted that many more institutions were planned to close or merge than eventually happened. The derailment of such a disaster is largely due to the urgent action of lawmakers to save American colleges and universities.

The CARES Act, signed by Congress in March 2020, set aside $ 2.2 trillion to help Americans adversely affected by the pandemic. Approximately $ 14 billion of these funds have been identified as the Emergency Higher Education Fund (HEERF). In January 2021, the US Department of Education announced an additional tranche of $ 21.2 billion for higher education. Most recently, in March, the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund III, known as the US Rescue Plan, was signed to provide $ 39.6 billion to support higher education institutions to serve students and ensure continuing education during a pandemic. In total, higher education has received $ 74.8 billion since March 2020 to remain operational and serve students while providing emergency assistance to students affected by COVID-19.

Across the country, universities have been given financial relief for what might otherwise be a death sentence, thus avoiding what could be an insurmountable increase in closures and mergers. Terms such as “innovation” and “resilience” have been used to describe the activities of many institutions using HEERF, while terms such as “disruption” have been used to describe times. While I believe that COVID-19 is an unprecedented disruptor and accelerator in higher education, I also believe that an important question still remains unanswered. Has higher education really been innovated and transformed to meet the basic needs and expectations of its students? Or has higher education simply found an “innovative” and “resilient” means of keeping it running?

Shortly before the pandemic broke out, there was a nationwide conversation about declining public confidence in higher education and ways to address it. HEERF funds have undoubtedly removed barriers for students to continue their studies and have supported the fair success of students against those hard hit by COVID-19. However, in some of my conversations with fellow university presidents across the country, I have heard that he has expressed the belief that HEERF has helped restore public confidence in higher education – I wholeheartedly consider this idea to be false. Public distrust has been allayed at best by the way universities have used HEERF funds, and confidence in higher education is far from being restored.

According to recent guidelines from the Ministry of Education, higher education institutions are generally required to use up their HEERF grants within one year of the Ministry processing the funds for each specific grant. This means that for many institutions, HEERF funds will no longer be available in 2022. How will the institutions serve students when the additional support ends? How will institutions find the means to provide support and teaching to students at the same level as students’ expectations? How will institutions work creatively with industry to create new pathways to employment or find breakthrough ways to promote social and economic mobility? All this in order to break through the social barriers that have hindered the success of our diverse students and their communities.

The equitable success of students requires that institutions adopt a new ideology and methodology for serving students. Our communities demand that institutions stop using slogans and marketing campaigns to mask unresolved gaps in processes and services provided. Time requires that institutions cease to be driven by initiative and begin to be driven by mission. In essence, this means making an integrated commitment through strategic planning and mission alignment to ensure long-term and continuous improvement in student support that is intentionally integrated into the institution’s structure. The future of higher education and the restoration of public confidence in it depend on colleges and universities to accept the integrity of being student-centered institutions and to abolish university business as usual.


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