The federal government should have stepped up to aid higher education

For colleges like GW – and the faculty, students and staff who attend them – the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening finances. 

The death toll is still climbing, people are still out of work and colleges around the country are still facing a choice of whether to shut down its campus or risk students’ lives. It did not have to be this way. The fact that the pandemic and its financial impact are this bad demonstrates the failure of national leadership to fight the virus and protect the well-being of people across the country. These failures have laid a colossal burden on universities to respond to the pandemic. And that burden has taken an economic toll on faculty, staff and students.

From the outset, the federal government dropped the ball. The Trump administration could have and should have used executive authority in January to mass-produce tests and protective gear, but it did not. America could have relied on an existing pandemic response playbook – but the Trump administration got rid of it. And people should have been able to rely on Congress to provide economic aid to workers and businesses – but Congress only passed a small benefits package that has now dried up.

The federal government punted responsibilities to the states, and while some states responded well, others simply ignored the problem. With the government having abdicated its responsibility to keep the economy afloat, universities have been placed in the impossible position of having to pick up the slack – despite having nowhere near the capacity to do so. Universities were forced to make hard choices related to staffing regardless – because the government’s failure left them no other option. Universities, including GW, may not have made perfect decisions in response to the pandemic, but we must recognize that they were left to their own devices with little support from national leadership.

While the CARES Act did provide some funding to colleges, it was woefully inadequate. GW received $10 million – which is ludicrously little in the face of a $220 million budget shortfall – and distributed it to students who needed it. The University may not have needed to dole out that money to students directly, and instead could have used it to prevent layoffs, if the federal government hadn’t ignored students in its stimulus package. Students were also largely ineligible for the $1,200 aid that most Americans received, even though college students are some of those hit hardest by the pandemic. It is shameful that their government failed to provide them the financial backstop that others received. 

The federal government’s cascading failure extends beyond students, to faculty and staff of universities as well. Because universities did not receive adequate stimulus funds, they faced massive budget shortfalls from new student attrition and changes in operations. GW, for example, has had to lay off dozens of workers, with more firings expected. Being laid off in the middle of a pandemic and recession is devastating to workers and their families. But it remains hard to see what other options GW might have had – the endowment is largely untouchable, and raising tuition costs will cause more stress for families. It is the role of the government to pick up that slack and prevent havoc from being wrecked on families and the economy – the U.S. government failed spectacularly on that measure, and for that, we paid a price. 

The federal government’s lack of leadership put all responsibility on individual states and in turn individual universities. Universities were allotted a certain amount of money in the CARES Act – GW chose to distribute it to students who met certain need-based criteria. This screwed officials into a financial position in which they felt that they needed to care for their students’ needs since the federal government was not. It should not have been GW’s responsibility to give the money to students to help them – that should have been the government’s responsibility. Universities should have been able to pass their pandemic cost to the government, which is what the government should be here for. The University has a fraction of the resources that the government has and should not be carrying this burden.

While layoffs should not be happening right now, they need to occur because of the financial strain this pandemic has put on the University. Had the University been given more financial support from the federal government, and its students been supported by the government as well, GW would not be in the situation where it had to choose where their funds should go.

Colleges’ responses to the pandemic have been varied across the country – endangering both students and faculty. Some actions have been executed well, while others have been botched. For example, the University of Alabama’s COVID-19 toll since bringing its students back to campus has reached more than 500. On the flip side, New York University has invited students back to campus but quarantined them and has suspended students who broke the rules. They could have kept their students safe and at home had they been given more financial resources to stay afloat this fall.

Universities’ varied responses to the pandemic are messy. College administrations should not value finances over student health and safety, and our government should have recognized that and stepped up to the plate. 

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Hannah Thacker and contributing opinions editor Andrew Sugrue, based on discussions with managing director Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, managing editor Parth Kotak, sports editor Emily Maise, culture editor Anna Boone and design editor Olivia Columbus. 

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