Higher ed experts concerned colleges could blow through coronavirus aid

The $1.8 trillion CARES act recently allocated $14 billion to colleges and universities.

One organization is concerned as to how colleges might spend that money.

In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act- a $2 trillion economic relief package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the largest stimulus bill in American history, allotting checks to millions of Americans, countless businesses, and hundreds of public and private colleges and universities.

But as the $14 billion in relief money for colleges has been dispersed, one organization is worried about how that money is going to be spent. While about $6.3 billion is required to go directly to students for emergency financial aid, one organization says these colleges are too frivolous in their spending. 

The National Association of Scholars, a non-profit, educational advocacy organization, released a Critical Care checklist in response to the pandemic and stimulus bill. The report serves as a guide “to restore American higher education after the 2020 coronavirus shutdown.” 

It recommends steps Congress should take to incentivize colleges to be fiscally responsible with funds, including cutting administrative overhead in half and not funding “wealthy colleges.”

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The list is divided into several sections of recommendations for Congress, including: Put students first, Supporting American Principles, and State Higher education policy. The report insists first that wealthy colleges should receive no relief money, and administration overhead should be cut in half. 

“The 100 private colleges and universities with the largest endowments cannot receive emergency higher education bailout funds,” the report states, adding that administration overhead, “[be cut] by 50 percent as a minimum condition for any further bailout funds.”

NAS then calls on schools to require academic rigor. As NAS says pass/fail and credit/no credit grading has diminished educational quality, the organization insists on requiring more challenging standards in order to receive money. 

“No college that awards credit for remedial courses should be eligible for bailout funds,” the report reads. 

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The report then demands that students be a priority, suggesting a freeze on student loan repayments, a student loan buyback program, and aid be given to loan defaulters. This list also requests that if colleges receive funding, American values be emphasized as an incentive by ensuring First Amendment protections on campus, implementing due process protections for campus adjudication procedures, and taking steps to ensure intellectual diversity.

The report concludes by urging these precautions be taken into account permanently to save higher education. 

“Our colleges and universities cannot be fixed by one simple reform. But we can begin to restore them, and we should begin now. NAS wants American higher education to survive, but not just to survive. We want it to flourish and to excel. Our recommendations sketch the necessary first steps.”

[UPDATED: Princeton, Yale, UPenn, Northwestern won’t take coronavirus aid money]

Campus Reform reached out to several staffers at NAS. Public Affairs Director Glenn Ricketts said that students should be the top priority in the handling of government funding: “We believe that every effort should be made to provide hard-pressed students with relief, such as delayed loan repayments, institutional buy-backs of Stafford loans… and focus on those students with the greatest needs.”

When asked if colleges should be limited to government relief if they refuse tuition or room and board refunds, Rickets said this was part of putting students first: “This should also be calculated in a way that puts ‘students first,’ as our general principle of policy recommends… Individual institutions should be scrutinized very closely and that they should provide a compelling justification for refusing to refund dormitory fees and other related costs.” 

”It may be the case that some colleges are in such financially straitened circumstances that they are unable to repay without incurring insolvency or bankruptcy.  But if that is not the case, then it seems fair to ask for them to justify the denial of refunds,” Ricketts said.

NAS Director of Research David Randall also told Campus Reform in an email that this factor should be considered: “Colleges are tax-free institutions to serve the common weal, and therefore they should not attempt to gouge the maximum amount of money from their students that the laws allow. Congress should certainly informally consider how generously colleges have behaved toward their students as colleges ask Congress to be generous to them.” 

Randall further added that this plan should be part of a bigger picture.

“What matters more is how colleges spend money going forward. Congress’ priority should be to change higher education staffing and policy over the long run,” he said.

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