What to do about colleges getting hammered by COVID-19

We favor federal financial assistance in this moment of crisis, but American higher education has done too little to rein in costs for years.

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A lone pedestrian walks on the campus of University of Illinois at Chicago

A lone pedestrian walks on the campus of University of Illinois at Chicago

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The news that the University of Illinois System stands to lose $270 million this year because of COVID-19 should come as no surprise.

The pandemic has pummeled every sector of the economy, with higher education no exception. Colleges and universities nationwide expect to lose up to $120 billion this year.

If there’s one place the burden of that financial hardship must not fall, though, it’s on the shoulders of middle-class families and young people in the form of ever-higher tuition bills.

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The pandemic, truth be told, is forcing American higher education to reckon with a longstanding problem of escalating college costs. More than 40 million Americans were buried under $1.6 trillion in student loan debt before anyone ever heard of COVID-19.

There’s no quick fix. But responsibility for making higher education more affordable should fall squarely on the shoulders of the federal government and colleges and universities.

Any new national economic stimulus package must “go big,” as we urged in an editorial last week. And part of going big is shoring up the finances of our nation’s colleges and universities, beyond the $14 billion provided by the CARES Act in March.

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The additional revenue is needed to help schools pay for the utterly unexpected, yet absolutely necessary, costs of fighting the pandemic, such as for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, buying new technology for remote learning and purchasing personal protective equipment for employees.

But it’s high time, looking beyond this immediate crisis, that colleges and universities themselves did much more to rein in costs. Enough with the expansive new athletic centers, plush dorms and fancy dining halls.

Now more than ever, with the economy reeling, the public expects cities and states to put their budgets under a microscope and find every bit of savings before raising taxes. The same should go for colleges and universities before raising tuitions.

There’s no getting around the immediate need for federal assistance. As the leaders of 46 higher education groups wrote in a letter to Congress in September:

“Many of our students and their families are struggling with reduced incomes and job losses, resulting in the need for billions of dollars in increased student aid. Our schools educate 26 million students, preparing them to compete and succeed in an increasingly difficult economy, and fueling the path towards a recovery.”

We ask only that colleges and universities couple that request for pandemic rescue funds, necessary as they are, with an acknowledgement that higher education became essentially unaffordable for many young Americans a long time ago.

What is being done about that?

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

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