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Government cannot forget about higher education amid this crisis

Government cannot forget about higher education amid this crisis
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Colleges and universities across the country are both a national treasure and a national responsibility. An educated population is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy and a dynamic economy where everyone is given the chance to succeed. But the coronavirus outbreak has jeopardized the future of higher education here in the United States, and it has become more important than ever for the government to step in to help protect the future of our cherished colleges and universities.

Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package to assist states, workers, and businesses with the fallout from stay at home orders, closures, and other measures to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak. Leaders on Capitol Hill are already discussing ideas for a fourth relief bill, which is expected to focus recovery efforts through spending in areas such as infrastructure in order to drive sustainable growth toward the future.

While the passage of the fourth relief bill is still far off, and its provisions are far from certain, it is absolutely imperative that it includes measures aimed at addressing both higher education affordability and funding for colleges and universities, which are critical issues that the pandemic has exacerbated. One potential reform to advance affordability is making the cost of higher education tax deductible, if not for all families, then at least for those that make below a certain income threshold.

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The total cost of higher education is already prohibitive for thousands of American families, even with federal student loans, which are difficult to qualify for and more difficult to pay off. The additional expenses for room, board, books, and supplies combined with the prospect of such lingering student debt is enough to deter many lower middle income students from pursuing higher education at the school of their choice.

The cost to attend private colleges is more than three times greater than the cost for state residents to attend state universities. Indeed, this is a far greater expense when considering that tuition and fees are after tax costs. While student loan payments to the government have been deferred for a period of time during this crisis, this does not reduce the current cost of a college education or the long term burden of student debt.

This crisis shows that the traditional financial model for colleges is broken and costs must be restructured. Colleges, especially private institutions, are a painful burden to many families who are increasingly unable to pay. This is not to imply that all high school graduates should attend private colleges or public state universities, but even community colleges carry costs that are difficult to bear, especially during these trying economic times. The trendline toward online education has now also accelerated because of this pandemic. At some point, college expenses may reflect this lower cost of delivery, but the system is not yet there.

Beyond measures to enhance affordability, funding for higher education needs to be a critical component of any fourth relief bill. Nearly all higher education institutions rely on a combination of enrollment tuition fees and public funding, combined with some level of endowment funding. Due to the spread of the coronavirus, most colleges and universities have closed their physical campuses and are rushing to enhance their digital offerings. But these institutions are suffering from financial losses, which will turn into staggering losses if they are unable to open in the fall.

The stimulus package provides $14 billion for colleges and universities, not nearly enough to help them operate at the level they once were. Of that amount, $12 billion is directed to colleges and universities based on full time equivalent enrollment of students eligible for Pell Grants, which favors large public institutions that have greater numbers of low income students. While this is a worthy goal, it falls short of what is necessary and provides minimal assistance to all the other institutions of higher learning. The government should work to support both higher learning institutions and students to get through these unprecedented times.

Implementing tax deductibility for college is one way to help our young people become innovators in an increasingly competitive world market. Likewise, increasing federal funding for higher learning institutions will help protect the future of these institutions while they shift their business models in response to this pandemic. If the government does not step in to protect the future of our colleges and our students, then our society and our economy will be weakened for generations to come.

Douglas Schoen is president of Schoen Consulting. Elliot Stein is chairman of Senturion Forecasting and member of the board of trustees for the New School and Claremont Graduate University. The opinions expressed above are those of the authors and not of the institutions they are affiliated with.