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How the Elections Could Impact Higher Ed

Episode 24

September 1, 2020 33 minutes


Terry Hartle, SVP of Government Relations at the American Council on Education, joins EAB’s Kaitlyn Maloney for a discussion of the proper role of government in supporting and strengthening higher education. The two review the extraordinary financial costs borne by colleges and universities in the early days of the pandemic and in preparation for the current semester.

They discuss prospects for another federal relief bill ahead of the November elections and offer sobering assessments of the challenges that will remain regardless of which party controls the White House or Congress come January. Mr. Hartle also reminds listeners that if we want to see the enormous value associated with higher education to be reflected in public policy, we have to convince elected officials to make it so.



0:00:10.2 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours, the weekly podcast covering all aspects of higher education. Over the past weeks, many Americans and actually a lot of people all over the world, turned their eyes to the first ever, fully virtual national conventions for both Democrats and Republicans. Many thoughts turned actually for the first time in months to the upcoming November election, and what it means for the US and probably the world. Those of us in higher education are also asking, “What’s gonna happen to colleges and universities after November?” To answer that question, we welcome one of America’s most effective advocates for higher education, Terry Hartle, the Senior VP of Government Relations at the American Council on Education. Terry talks this week with EAB’s Kaitlyn Maloney about the extraordinary financial cost to colleges in the early days of COVID-19, the prospects of another federal relief bill ahead of November’s elections, and an honest, even sobering perspective on the road ahead, no matter what political party controls the White House or Congress in 2021. Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.


0:01:20.5 Kaitlyn Maloney: Welcome to Office Hours at EAB, this is Kaitlyn Maloney jumping in today for David Attis, who was supposed to be here but had to step out to, I believe, take his daughter to her driving test. So some age-long family traditions just haven’t been affected by the pandemic, I suppose. But it’s my great honor to be here. One of the first episodes that I recorded for this podcast was back in May on the impact of the CARES Act on higher education, and I did my best job as a higher ed research expert to transmit the great effects of this policy on the higher education industry to our listeners. But today, I thought we’d bring in a leading higher ed policy expert himself to speculate and share a little bit about the current environment and how the upcoming events of the election and other policy implications might play out this fall and beyond, Terry Hartle from the American Council on Education. Terry, it’s great to have you here this afternoon. How are you today?

0:02:19.6 Terry Hartle: I’m well, thanks. Thanks very much for inviting me to be with you.

0:02:24.0 KM: Of course. We are so grateful for your time. Well, Terry, it has been a pretty tumultuous summer in Washington, D.C., where I believe we’re both based. Perhaps even more tumultuous than the typical summer here in D.C. We’re recording this episode today on August 24th. And the past three weeks or so I’d say, most of our listener have been watching anxiously as a number of major institutions have been making last minute changes to their in-person re-population plans. Some changing their plans last minute to allow students on campus just days before they were set to arrive. Some sending students home just after they had arrived on campus. I know at ACE, you sit at the epicenter really of higher education leadership, so I’m really excited to hear your take on what the events of the past few weeks and what you think will happen next. So I guess that’s a good place for us to start, if any. Tell me your thoughts on current events and how do you expect the next few weeks and into the fall to play out?

0:03:25.6 TH: Well, I’ve been working in higher education policy now for some 40 years, and have never seen anything remotely like this. They don’t teach this in the education programs to prepare people for careers in higher education management. We’re really dealing with terra incognito, and institutions are having to make it up as they go along. I think the first thing I would say is that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on all businesses in American society. Colleges and universities are fundamentally no different in that respect. Expenses have increased significantly and revenues have fallen dramatically. So institutions have had to reinvent themselves on the fly to sort of figure out how they can operate in this sort of a very challenging environment.

0:04:22.3 TH: We estimated in the early summer that colleges and universities would spend about $46 billion coping with the first wave of the pandemic. Partly that was refunding room and board charges. Partly that was the sharp decline in auxiliary revenue. It was also the likelihood of enrollment declines, particularly among international students. In July, we reached out to a number of college and university officials, and we surveyed them about the costs that were associated with re-opening. Now, obviously when we were asking this in late June, early July, they were very uncertain about exactly what their re-opening plans would be. A few schools had already announced their plans, but the vast majority indicated that they were gonna wait and see how the pandemic evolved before they made a final decision.

0:05:21.6 TH: And at that point, when we asked them, they identified costs in a number of categories that we outlined. These would be costs associated with cleaning, with testing, with tracing, costs connected with isolating students who tested positive and providing medical assistance, and costs associated with social distancing. And we estimated, based on this survey, that the total cost for colleges and universities would be somewhere in the vicinity of $70 billion to re-open in the fall of 2020 that they had not faced in the fall of 2019. So just those two numbers, $46.6 billion in costs associated with the first wave, another roughly $70 billion associated with re-opening give you some idea of the financial consequences for institution. Higher education in the US is about $650 billion of revenue a year, so that puts it in context what we’re dealing with.

0:06:30.2 TH: This is a once in-a-lifetime event, there are no precedents for it, and it’s an evolving situation. This is something where the course of the pandemic has a great deal to do with whether or not institutions can reopen and the extent to which they can reopen. I think so far in August, we’ve seen several dozen schools, including some household name universities, indicate that they will not be able to re-open for in-person instruction despite their earlier commitment to doing so. And that’s really the key consideration here, is how much can we re-open while preserving the health and safety of the entire campus community, students, faculty and staff? And a lot of schools, as we got into August, looking at the state of the outbreak in their particular region, concluded that it just wasn’t as safe as they wanted it to be for re-opening, so they decided to go in a different direction. Long answer to a very short question, but the bottom line is, it’s complicated.

0:07:47.8 KM: No, thank you for that. I think that’s very helpful for our listeners too. We, as I previewed earlier, gave some coverage, some insights into what the CARES Act meant back in May, we’ve done a few episodes on what the re-population conversation looked like, but I think that was a very coherent summary of all of the different costs and re-opening implications that schools have been grappling with, giving some leaders just a quick peek into some of the background information informing their decisions. And for me, personally at EAB, I work with college business leaders most notably on operational best practices, financial best practices, and this summer, really for the first time, I was finding myself looking at the policy arena a great deal, because the business leaders that I worked with for the first time we’re saying, “You know, so much of our ability to survive this thing depends on the federal and our local governments and what their responses are going to be, and in particular, or what sorts of emergency relief funding they’re going to give us.” So we previewed the CARES Act back in May, again, and I know that college has got some support there, not nearly enough as ACE has published on for what they would need even in the short term in the spring in their emergency response.

0:09:00.0 KM: Now as we’re looking ahead without enough of the relief bill, as you mentioned, signaling significant financial distresses ahead. I’m curious for your reaction to the current policy environment, what we’ve seen so far, and the administration’s overall response in supporting colleges and universities through this crisis.

0:09:21.4 TH: Sure. Well, the current policy environment is a complex and confusing and partisan, so not much new there. We’ve sort of been living in that environment for the last four years. As you mentioned, Congress has passed legislation to help the United States cope with the pandemic. Indeed, depending on how you count, Congress passed either three or four separate pieces of legislation in March and April that were designed to address the costs associated with the pandemic. The biggest of these was the so-called CARES Act. This provided about $2 trillion in funding, a modest amount of which went to colleges and universities and students to help them through the short-term challenges. The Department of Education had to distribute that money. In some cases, the Department of Education did it pretty smoothly and distributed the money in a way that was very consistent with congressional intent. In a couple of other cases, the Department of Education frankly made a hash of things and limited the effectiveness of the money because of the restrictions that they put on the distribution of funds.

0:10:45.3 TH: But right now, Congress is still considering another supplemental. There are dozens of issues in this big package that they’ve been discussing. House Democrats wanna spend about $3 trillion on another supplemental that would help a broad array of actors across the American society. Senate Republicans put together a bill that they are using as a basis for negotiation, they never passed it in the Senate, but this is what’s matching up with the House-passed bill, that would spend $1 trillion dollars. And the big issue to get them started is this gap between $1 trillion and $3 trillion. Most people would look at that and say, “Well, you know guys, there is a number in between 1 and 3 that would provide the basis for a compromise,” but in the hyper-partisan political environment, it’s just proven impossible so far to focus on that.

0:11:49.5 TH: A challenge for colleges and universities is that both the House and Senate bills would include a significant amount of money for education, including higher education. And so we’re anxious to see Congress and the administration complete work on this legislation and have it signed into law. Having said that, we are in August. Congress mostly leaves town in August, and that’s where we are. The last week was the Democratic Convention, so nothing happened in Washington. This week is the Republican Convention, so nothing’s gonna happen this week. It’s quite possible that we don’t see anything really happen until they return after the Labor Day recess. And then things are gonna get a little dicey because we’ve got the economy still struggling, we’ve got tens of millions of Americans who have been affected by the pandemic and unemployment and associated financial consequences, and on September 30th, we approach the end of the fiscal year, so the federal government will need to pass legislation to keep the federal government operating in the month before the election. So I suspect September is gonna be a pretty busy, active month in Washington with a lot of high stakes decision-making taking place.

0:13:18.8 KM: And I know we’re all very hopeful that we’ll see another relief bill in September and certainly before November, but as you rightly pointed out, colleges and universities will have to stand in line with virtually every other market sector looking for that funding. It’s not guaranteed that higher ed will get anything, it’s certainly not a guarantee that they’ll get everything that they need or that they’re asking for. So with that in mind, what do you see as the biggest fundamental challenges that colleges and universities should be prepared to fix and respond to on their own? And conversely, what’s the best do you think they can expect from by way of federal or legislation support this fall?

0:14:00.3 TH: Well, that’s obviously a couple of very big, complicated questions there. I think colleges and universities, schools are having to make decisions. They have obviously, in many cases, pushed these decisions off as long as they could about the extent to which they would re-open for in-person instruction. Every college and university wanted to re-open as normally as possible, as long as they could do it in a way that would protect the health and safety of their students, their faculty and staff, and the local community. Most schools indicated that they were gonna try to do some sort of a model involving some students studying residentially in-person, other students studying online and not being on residence. What we’ve seen over the last month is more and more schools are going in the direction of complete online learning, and I think this is because, at the end of the day, schools and universities are trying to minimize the possibility that something could go terribly wrong for a student or a staff member, that they become terribly sick, God forbid, that someone should die.

0:15:18.1 TH: The course of the pandemic has been so unpredictable, the tail of the pandemic, at least the first wave here in the United States, has been much longer than it’s been anywhere else in the world, and more and more schools, as we got close to the traditional date in which students show up in the residence halls, have decided that they just weren’t comfortable going forward. Having said that, we are now at a point where hundreds, if not thousands, of schools are re-opening for at least some in-person instruction, and this will present challenges. Many of the challenges schools have been able to think about going forward. Now, for example, cleaning, one of the big elements any institution that wants to reopen has to do is a more intensive job cleaning campus facilities than they’ve done in the past. That’s in the control of colleges and universities. They can do that. Testing, tracing and isolating individuals in terms of diagnosing whether or not people are sick, whether or not they need to be isolated, this is something every campus will have to figure out for itself.

0:16:32.4 TH: Typically, we’d expect to see some sort of federal guidelines or requirements that schools would be expected to follow, but the Trump administration did not wanna produce those for any sector of American society, so colleges and universities are having to figure this out on their own, particularly the testing. I think that’s a challenging area. Institutional leaders want tests that are cheap, reliable and fast. Those don’t really exist, so they’re all making compromises to get the best tests and to assess how frequently to test people on campus going forward. Finally, social distancing. This is one of those things that’s partially in control of colleges and universities, and to a large extent, is not in their control. The schools can obviously put social distancing protocols in place. Whether or not the campus community follows those protocols is something we can’t tell. And already, there have been some incidents, often it seems involving off-campus activities, where the social-distancing protocols might not have been observed.

0:17:43.7 TH: So colleges and universities can put everything in place as best they can do. Some things like cleaning are relatively straightforward and institutions can figure that part of it out. Other parts are not straightforward, like the testing and the tracing. And other parts of like social distancing depend on calculations that are outside the control of the institution. It depends on the campus community fully observing them. So I think schools are gonna have to be very nimble as they enter on-person instruction this fall. I think things are gonna go wrong and they’ll have to be resilient and figure out ways to try and manage it. It would not surprise me to see additional schools decide that they just simply can’t make it work in a way that maximizes safety for the campus community, and that other schools may well close.

0:18:42.9 TH: Most of the pressures exhibited on institutions over the last four or five months were to reopen as much as possible. Certainly, that’s what the political environment wanted, that’s what the public indicated in surveys that they wanted, provided it could be done safely. That’s been quite a challenge to figure out how to do it safely under the current circumstances. We’ll see how it plays out, but for better or for worse, we’re pretty well launched on the start of the 2021 academic year.

0:19:21.0 KM: Yeah. Safely and cost effectively. I know earlier in the summer, especially when most schools were still open to a physical re-opening, it was very clear that the schools that were going to be able to do it most effectively were the schools that had the money to invest in the additional cleaning needed, and more importantly, the just cost of developing that sort of testing infrastructure. So I think relatedly, we’re also hearing a lot of observations recently around how the pandemic is affecting the institutions that serve a disproportionate majority of our students from under-represented backgrounds or Pell-eligible students, particularly paying attention to the equity issues that are being caused by the shift to remote learning, watching what’s playing out in K-12 and how that’s feeding the higher ed pipeline. I know many of our partner institutions across the board are expecting to see lower enrollments this fall by minority students. I’m curious for your take on the federal government, the policy response to these equity issues. Do you think that the federal government will step in and provide additional financial support to help underserved student populations afford college this fall, at least in this current administration? And should we be prepared to see more college freshmen arrive on campus less prepared than they need to be academically and financially?

0:20:43.0 TH: Well, those are very important questions to which there are no easy or immediate answers. I think we always know that when the American society gets in trouble, the least advantaged subgroups of the population are the ones that are often the most hurt, particularly in the short run. There are widespread concerns that low-income and moderate-income students will not return to campus this fall, but we don’t know if that’s the case or not. But certainly as schools are evaluating their enrollment numbers this fall, one of the things they’ll be looking at is how we are doing in terms of equity, particularly at this moment in American history when questions are once again being raised about social justice and equity and individual opportunity. I think there will be a great deal of interest in this.

0:21:41.1 TH: The impact of the pandemic might end up being cumulative in the sense that the biggest impact will not necessarily be on students who were in college when this started, but students who were in high school and thinking about college, planning for college. High school preparation is one of the great disequalizers in American higher education. Some students have access to extraordinarily rich and academically strong secondary school classes. Many students, particularly low-income students, do not. Many of those students who don’t have access to those quality classes also rely on the assistance of their high school to help them think through post-secondary education opportunities. Ted Mitchell, the ACE President, says that one of the things that most worries him about the pandemic is he thinks that the limited gains that we have made over the last 25 years in increasing opportunity and enhancing equity in post-secondary education could very quickly and dramatically be undermined as the pandemic continues. So, ensuring that that does not happen is a multifaceted challenge that involves secondary schools, it involves public policy, it certainly involves colleges and universities. That’s gonna be a very big order going forward to try and address.

0:23:09.9 TH: How can the federal government help out? One of the big costs that we identified pretty early as a result of the pandemic would be increased financial need from low and middle-income students. And millions of Americans who have lost jobs, we’re now starting to hear stories about Americans who might be foreclosed out of their homes, this is gonna create a serious challenge or impossibility for a lot of people to afford post-secondary education who otherwise might have been able to do that. So we hope that as Congress thinks about funding for higher education in any future supplemental, that they provide funding for institutions to make available to need-based student aid. Some of the funding in the CARES Act was for financially needy students, but that money has largely been spent, and we’re gonna need more if colleges and universities are gonna be able to meet the needs that are going to exist.

0:24:16.8 TH: Every college president that I have spoken to has figured out a way to put more money into student financial need this year. Financial aid budgets are going up even in these extraordinarily challenging times. But at the end of the day, it’s only the federal government and possibly state governments that have the resources to provide access to higher education for millions of Americans who otherwise might find themselves left behind. I think this is a particularly challenging moment, given the concerns about social justice and the desire that we address some of the problems that we have lived with for too long, and we’ll simply have to see how public policy responds to that. Both House and Senate bills for the next supplemental would provide funding for higher education and for low-income students. Obviously, we’re doing everything we can in Washington to try and facilitate that, but these things are a little bit out of our control at this point. And indeed, not only are they out of control, it’s not as if Congress and the administration are working very hard at this precise moment to make this happen. So we will continue to do everything we can to advocate for institutions and students here at ACE. My colleagues and the other Washington-based higher education association will do that.

0:25:47.4 TH: I know that this is a matter of top priority for the college and university presidents that I talk to, so we’ve got a lot of resources and a lot of assets we’re putting in place to do the advocacy work. We’re just hopeful that we will be successful whenever we see a subsequent legislation.

0:26:09.2 KM: Certainly. And to that end, think about subsequent legislation, there’s a chance and a hope for more stimulus in September, but I think at this point when I talk to higher ed leaders, a lot of the focus is already on November. We’re 70 days away from the election. Some higher education leaders, faculty, staff, students thinking, “With everything going on, just perhaps if the administration changes, if Joe Biden wins, all of these problems will go away.” I’m curious, tell us why it’s a mistake to think that way, why a change in administration won’t necessarily solve all of these problems for higher ed, not even necessarily, certainly won’t solve these problems overnight.

0:26:49.0 TH: Well, there are no magic bullets in public policy. I think we often believe that we just change the party that was in the White House or the party that was controlling Congress, that everything would miraculously be fixed. That won’t happen. The biggest thing America needs is a vaccine so that we can get our arms around the pandemic, so that the country can return to some sort of a normal environment. With luck, we will have that maybe late this year. Most likely, according to the public health experts we talked to, it’ll be early next year. But with luck, we’ll have a vaccine that will enable us to get a hold of this. It’s clear that the Biden administration would like to invest a lot of money in higher education and elementary and secondary education. The Biden administration has made… Sorry, a Biden administration would invest a lot of money, that’s part of what they’ve been saying in their platform, but they’re talking about $7 or $8 trillion dollars. That’s an awful lot of money to come up with. Making promises in a campaign season is easy. Actually delivering on those promises, if you are elected, is not so simple. And that’ll be a challenge I think that the Biden administration, if there is one, will have to encounter.

0:28:13.6 TH: Yesterday, I noticed that Robert Samuelson, The Washing Post economics correspondent, had an estimate that the Biden promises for higher education and student aid would total $750 billion. That’s just promises in one area of the budget. That’s a huge number. Whether or not they’ll be able to do that remains to be seen. I think a second thing we need to be concerned about is that for many students, it is not simply the money to finance a college education, it’s the academic preparation to be ready to do college level work. It’s the other things that happen in terms of childcare and support services that many students need to succeed in post-secondary education. I believe America would be far better off if we made it possible for every academically qualified individual to have full access to a post-secondary education, but it’s not simply a question of making Pell Grants and student loans available, it’s a much broader question, a much more complicated equation than we sometimes think about.

0:29:29.2 KM: And Terry, I know we’re just about out of time this afternoon, but knowing the role that you play working with higher education presidents and other leaders, and the role that you play in Washington, D.C., what advice do you have for our listeners now, our college leaders, about what they can be doing to influence legislative action and prepare for whatever happens come the election this fall?

0:29:50.1 TH: Well, I think the college leaders have been extraordinarily good at trying to think through very carefully what their plans will be for the fall. And as I’ve said a couple of times, they’ve tried to maintain some zone of flexibility so that they can move things around if they need to. I think the most important thing in terms of advocacy and talking to congressional officials is just to make sure that college and university leaders at all levels, not just presidents, but all levels of faculty and staff are talking to elected officials about the challenges that they face as they try to reopen. Remember, every industry in America is facing unique challenges, unprecedented challenges, as we try to get the nation to return to some level of normalcy and to boost the economy. It’s too easy for people on campuses to think, “Well, of course, they know what we are dealing with here on campus,” when in fact, not only do they not know, but they’ve got lots of other people telling them about the problems that they’re having in other industries or organizations.

0:31:03.4 TH: So I think this is a very important moment for people who care about higher education, who wanna see the federal government support it and invest in it to help institutions cope with the pandemic, to reach out to elected officials and make sure that they’re aware of the costs that institutions are encountering, the challenges you’re facing, and some of the revenue losses that schools have seen, because it’s all part of a big piece. The most fundamental view of a democracy is that the public, by its actions, determines the values that will dominate, and if we want the values associated with higher education and access to it to be reflected in public policy, we have to do as much as we can to make sure that those who represent us in Washington are fully aware of all the challenges that campus leaders are facing, and nobody can say that better than campus leaders themselves.

0:32:09.3 KM: I think that that is an excellent point to end on, Terry. Thank you so much. We didn’t even have time to discuss the role of state and local legislatures in this whole conversation. Perhaps we’ll have to bring you back again to talk about that important responsibility as well. But we are so grateful for your time this afternoon. I know our listeners are so grateful for your perspectives and for all of the advocacy work that you’re doing on their behalf, so thank you very much and we hope to speak to you again soon.

0:32:33.7 TH: I’ll look forward to it. Thanks again for having me, and thanks for all the great work that EAB does.

0:32:39.0 KM: Thank you.


0:32:48.3 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us again next week when Carla Hickman welcomes University of Kentucky Executive VP for Finance and Administration, Dr. Eric Monday, and Kentucky Athletic Director, Mitch Barnhart. They’ll tell us what the new normal looks like on Kentucky’s campus, and how they’re gonna balance the enormous contributions that collegiate athletics make university life with the impossibility of social distancing among athletes, coaches, trainers, in prepping for and competing in college sports. We’ll see you then. For Office Hours with EAB, I’m Matt Pellish.

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