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Washington’s inability to agree on COVID relief puts future of colleges, universities at risk

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A new academic year for the nation’s 4,300 colleges and universities has dawned with a little less of its customary pomp and pageantry.

The excitement of move-in day was muted. There was less laughter at curbsides as students pulled bags out of cars (and parents suppressed welling tears). Fewer kickoffs are soaring into crisp blue skies. The angst that many Americans feel also exists on the nation’s campuses that educate 20 million students annually and employ 4 million people.

As presidents of university systems, we are concerned about the health and safety of our university communities, and about the social and economic well-being of our states and of the nation. We are alarmed about the future of higher education institutions — indispensable centers of research, innovation and discovery — in America.

Today, we serve as presidents of the University of Colorado and the University of Massachusetts, but in our previous lives, we served together in the U.S. House of Representatives. Though we were members of different parties, we believed in the absolute importance of collaboration and collegial engagement — and still do. Simply put, it would be a tragic mistake to allow the institutions that have driven America’s success and are essential to its future to wither during the COVID-19 siege.

The CARES Act signed into law in March provided an initial round of pandemic-relief funding, but Washington’s inability to agree on a second comprehensive bill leaves higher education in significant jeopardy. We urge decision-makers to consider the severe pandemic-driven disruptions to these powerful drivers of economic development and social mobility. For colleges and universities across the nation, pandemic-related expenses already have been enormous and continue to mount. At the same time, our institutions are suffering severe revenue losses.

As a recent Brookings Institution report noted, no institution is escaping the pandemic’s financial impact. “COVID-19 puts higher-ed finances at risk. For some universities, revenue shortfalls are going to bring pain — for other universities the shortfall may be a disaster,” the report said.

During our time together in Congress, we focused on keeping America strong, ensuring opportunities for America families and solving the pressing challenges facing our nation. Today, in our current roles, we worry that the nation is losing sight of the grave risks to national and local economies that will result if the health of our colleges and universities is allowed to deteriorate. This should be of concern to citizens from all political persuasions. Fewer matters will have greater impact on the future security and prosperity of the nation.

Recent discussions about higher education have tended to focus on the delivery of academic programs — in-person or remote — or have related to high-profile sports programs. In Washington, D.C., the discussion has centered on student loan programs — an important topic for sure. However, less has been said about the need to preserve a sector that has driven so much of our nation’s success.

Higher education’s impact is felt in so many ways:

A college degree typically means economic transformation, with the median lifetime earnings for bachelor’s-degree holders estimated to be twice those of high school graduates.

Colleges and universities are major employers. They are the largest employers in 10 states and in two-thirds of America’s 100 largest cities. U.S. colleges and universities employ 4 million people. In comparison, the auto industry employs 3 million people and airlines 750,000.

Colleges and universities ignite innovation. From 1996 to 2015, technology transfer from universities sparked development of more than 380,000 new inventions and contributed $591 billion to the national GDP.

More broadly, access to higher education at strong, vital institutions is essential to the prosperity of families and to our need for a workforce that can compete and win on the global stage. Extending higher education more fully to underrepresented communities is essential if we are to live up to our nation’s ideals and create social harmony.

We must support our colleges and universities because our nation needs to keep moving forward. Our students need to move forward. We must be primed for renewal and recovery when the pandemic is behind us. And we must be engaged in R&D efforts aimed at treating and preventing COVID-19, subduing other potential health threats, and driving our innovation economy.

Maintaining the strength of colleges and universities today will translate into a better tomorrow for our students and the nation.

Mark Kennedy is the president of the University of Colorado. From 2001 to 2007, Kennedy served in the U.S. House of Representatives, first for Minnesota’s 2nd District and then for its 6th District. Marty Meehan is president of the University of Massachusetts and represented the state’s 5th District in the U.S. House from 1993 to 2007.


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