Trump administration amps up pressure to reopen colleges

Dive Brief:

  • The Trump administration is ratcheting up pressure on college and state leaders to reopen campuses this fall.
  • Federal officials, speaking at a White House roundtable on the topic Tuesday, said they expected K-12 schools and colleges to resume operations in the fall. President Donald Trump said during the event that he intended to pressure governors to do so.
  • Some colleges have said they would remain almost exclusively online in the next academic year. The push by the White House throws their plans into question.

Dive Insight:

Many colleges intend to hold in-person classes in the fall, even as coronavirus cases spike across the country. As institutions have announced their plans over the past couple of months, the U.S. Department of Education has remained quiet about whether it would expect colleges to reopen in the fall.

Then on Monday, Trump tweeted. His all-caps declaration that “schools must open” was the first definitive White House statement of what federal officials would demand of educators in the coming academic year. 

That same day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a new policy that international students won’t be allowed to enter or stay in the U.S. if their college opts to remain fully online for the fall term. If the health crisis worsens and colleges revert to online instruction during the academic year, those students would need to leave the country, according to the rule.

Backlash was immediate, with critics arguing the move complicated colleges’ plans for reopening campuses. Some high-profile institutions have decided to continue instruction mostly online in the fall, including Harvard University and all of the California State University System campuses. 

Then, on Tuesday, the administration engaged in a full-court press on reopening schools. The four-hour roundtable featured top officials along with Trump, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Health Secretary Alex Azar and Vice President Mike Pence, as well as a contingent of health experts, instructors, students and college administrators who supported reopening schools. 

“Our expectation should be that students can be back together in the fall, whether it’s on K-12 campuses or higher ed environments as well,” DeVos said, adding that “with everything in life, there is some level of risk.”

Trump took a sharper tone, accusing those who wanted to keep schools shuttered of politicizing the issue. He called out Harvard, saying the institution should be ashamed for continuing online learning. “It’s an easy way out,” he said.

A significant number of colleges have sought to restart face-to-face classes, in part because they are concerned that doing otherwise would dent their enrollments, some experts say. Colleges are already bracing for a downturn in revenue, and a decline in lucrative out-of-state and international students would especially damage their finances. International students make up about 6% of higher ed enrollment.

Institutions have touted a slew of safety measures designed to mitigate the virus’s spread. Those involve mandatory face coverings, widespread testing for the coronavirus and robust contact tracing, as well as changes to the physical environment, such as installing plexiglass barriers in classrooms. But these protections could prove costly, especially for colleges whose budgets are already precarious.

Some in the sector are calling for building up colleges’ online infrastructure in the likelihood the coronavirus continues to disrupt campus operations. 

At a virtual meeting of the House’s higher education subcommittee Tuesday, Shaun Harper, president of the American Educational Research Association and founder and executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, questioned why colleges were hyper-focused on reopening campuses.

During the meeting, Harper said he was “annoyed” that colleges were scrambling to ensure football — a major source of revenue for some schools  could take place in the fall, when instead they could be figuring out how students could learn effectively in a digital environment. The latter, he said, is an inexpensive endeavor compared with trying to resume normal operations.

Also during the hearing, California State Chancellor Tim White repeatedly mentioned the need for new federal aid for the sector as colleges craft their reopening strategies. The last relief bill, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, set aside $14 billion for higher education, a far cry from what industry groups say was needed. Cal State didn’t plan for in-person courses in the fall, in part because it estimated reopening fully would cost the system millions every week to adequately test students, White said. 

House Democrats’ proposal, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, gives $37 billion more to colleges, but it has been skewered by Republican lawmakers, who say the legislation goes too far and isn’t focused on the financial fallout the virus caused.

Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Penn.) said during the hearing that the bill was partisan and invited a “socalist takeover” of private loan companies. He said the postsecondary system is bloated, joining other lawmakers who questioned during the hearing what cuts colleges have made in light of the pandemic.

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