US colleges call for support to help fight coronavirus

Campuses see economic woes mounting, but full assault on Covid-19 more urgent

March 18, 2020
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US colleges and universities are telling the federal government they will need significant help coping with the costs of coronavirus shutdowns, but believe the priority for the government should be acting more seriously to stop the outbreak.

Financial worries are clearly substantial and mounting, said Terry Hartle, senior vice-president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, the main US higher education association.

But the lack of robust presidential leadership against the Covid-19 outbreak is far more concerning to US higher education leaders, Dr Hartle said in an interview.

“Higher education is one small part of a nationwide crisis,” Dr Hartle said. “Getting their arms around the virus, and trying to mitigate its spread, would be the very best thing they could do for all of us in the short run.”

The council, which represents more than 1,700 colleges and universities, had been scheduled to open its annual conference this past weekend in San Diego. Instead, council leaders connected by phone, united in their uncertainty and anxiety that an unprecedented national disruption is only going to get worse.

“In a national emergency,” Dr Hartle said. “We really tend to look to the president for leadership and a sense of order and direction, and that’s not really coming.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an updated coronavirus advisory over the weekend in which it recommended no gatherings of 50 or more people anywhere in the US for at least the next eight weeks.

But the CDC emphasised that the advice did not apply to “schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses”. For that, the CDC has given no definitive answer, saying colleges without coronavirus “identified in their community” can operate with plans that include watching for anyone becoming sick, while those in communities with identified cases “may need to suspend classes”.

US colleges and universities appear to have taken a substantially more aggressive approach. Dr Hartle said he knew of no major US college or university that has not already canceled in-person classes. He said there may be some limited exceptions among two-year non-residential institutions where students come to class in small numbers and return home.

Some institutions have offered their students pro-rated refunds. Some are switching to pass-fail grading for the spring semester, and some might award degrees to seniors based on achievements to date.

Even colleges that struggled with the decision – for reasons that may include lost revenue or uncertainties about student access to food, housing or online options – appear to have relented. Mansfield University, a rural public institution of just 1,600 students in rural northern Pennsylvania, agreed to cancel classes but let students remain on campus because they may not have computers or internet connections elsewhere.

The fate of foreign students, with few local options, has been a particular concern. The Trump administration, in response to a plea from Northeastern University, did agree, however, to waive a visa requirement that usually would require foreign students to return to their home countries if they are not taking in-person classes.

Donald Trump held a news briefing over the weekend in which he also announced a waiver of interest on all student loans held by federal government agencies.

The president described it as a move to help “a lot of students that are left in the middle right now” by the closing of their colleges.

The waiving of interest on federal student loans could prove helpful to those paying them off, Dr Hartle said. Americans owe some $1.4 trillion (£1.1 trillion) in federally financed student loans, with rates averaging about 5.8 per cent, meaning billions of dollars in potential savings.

But most of those debtors are no longer in college, and many federal student loans do not even accumulate interest while the borrower is in college. In addition, the US Federal Reserve cut interest rates to essentially zero at an emergency weekend meeting, lowering borrowing costs across the economy.

The ultimate cost to US colleges is far too difficult to predict, Dr Hartle said, with so many unknowns remaining. Economic recessions are generally understood to boost college enrolment, especially at job-focused two-year institutions. The last major recession saw total US post-secondary enrolment climb from 17.2 million students in 2006 to 20.4 million in 2011.

But such a repeat is far from guaranteed in this case, Dr Hartle said, because of various factors including the great speed at which the US economy nosedived in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

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