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We need another investment like the GI Bill to protect American opportunity

We need another investment like the GI Bill to protect American opportunity
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In 1946, college campuses swelled with millions of veterans as the GI bill forever expanded American opportunity. This fall, we may witness just as dramatic an overnight transformation when universities reopen with far emptier classrooms. The pandemic, and its economic disruption, threatens to derail a generation of American college students.

In several recent polls, colleges could lose 20 percent of their students. Some research reports 69 percent of prospective students are facing a dramatically altered financial status for their families. If we don’t act, we will face a massive and sudden decline in the percentage of Americans who can achieve higher education. Not only would that kick a giant hole in the realities of the American dream, it would cause lasting damage to this country’s ability to compete.

Congress faces terrible choices about how to support an economy suddenly flattened by a pandemic. With no ability to make everyone whole, the government must do its best to protect economic infrastructures to allow a quick rebound. I worry that we have lost sight of the fact higher education is the fundamental infrastructure of the American economy. 

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The CARES Act provided some funding, $6 billion for direct grants to students; there are approximately 20 million students in higher education. That averages to about $300 per student — not nearly enough to prevent a major decline in their ultimate graduation rate. And Congress has not yet provided support for this year’s high school seniors, who may never make it to college without extra help.

This is a time to greatly increase federal financial aid — based on need — for all of those families who tumbled out of the middle class overnight. Those years of careful savings and college funds were hit hard. What’s more, students won’t have access to the kinds of jobs that help them work their way through school.

We will need an investment like the GI bill, one that paid off greatly.

We should increase Pell grants for needy students, grants that have far less impact now than when they were created in 1965. As of 2017, Pell awards covered a meager 29 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year college. And, especially now, we should expand the reach of Pell to cover those families in the bottom rungs of the middle class.

The CARES Act also provided a welcome $6 billion in funding for the more than 4,000 higher education institutions in the country, which will help somewhat to cover the conservatively estimated $45 billion in losses institutions will sustain. While critics point to the handful of truly wealthy institutions who also received aid (many of whom have kindly refused it) the vast majority of colleges, universities and community colleges operate without any margin for error. Experts have predicted that between 500 and 1,000 may shut their doors within the next couple of years.

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It is often said that American higher education is the envy of the world. Of Reuter’s 100 most innovative universities across the globe — those driving science, technology and the future — 46 are in the U.S. The breathtaking variety of our institutions — public and private, large and small, religious and secular — provide a remarkable range of opportunities and are still generally affordable and highly discounted. Losing as many as a quarter of our institutions would create irreparable harm.

In addition to the tragedy of those dreams cut short is a serious long-term risk to the American economy.

A double-digit decline in the percentage of college-educated Americans could forever reduce the earning power and economic contributions of millions over the course of their lives. It would also leave us far less competitive in a global, knowledge-based economy.

The countries against whom we compete are not letting this happen. We shouldn’t either.

Tania Tetlow is the president of Loyola University New Orleans. Previously, she served as professor of law, senior vice president and chief of staff at Tulane University. Before joining academia in 2005, Tetlow's legal career included service as a federal prosecutor and work as a commercial litigator. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School.