Is Help Coming From Washington?

President Trump's executive orders offer some aid but could dim prospects of a larger coronavirus bill with help for colleges.

August 10, 2020
 
Courtesy of Sydoni Elwood
Laid-off CUNY adjunct professor Sydoni Elwood has been hoping more federal aid will let the system bring her back.

Executive orders President Donald Trump signed this weekend may bring a little help to Americans, including continuing to excuse many student loan borrowers from making payments through the rest of the year.

But the unilateral move to deal with a handful of the problems the nation is facing during the coronavirus pandemic does not include help for the nation's colleges and universities, which are seeking more than $110 billion in federal help the industry says it needs to stabilize difficult financial situations, reopen campuses safely or to protect them from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

And higher education lobbyists say they are worried that by dealing with some of the most pressing issues, like continuing to give the unemployed slightly larger federal checks each week, Trump's orders -- if they survive legal challenges -- will take away some of the steam to push a divided Congress to pass a larger relief bill with additional aid to higher education, as well as the protection from lawsuits colleges want when, as is expected, people contract COVID-19 when campuses reopen.

It remained unclear if negotiations on a relief package would continue, with Democrats and Republicans on Sunday news shows blaming each other for the stalled talks.

"The extent of relief that could be provided through executive action is very limited," said Craig Lindwarm, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' vice president of congressional and governmental affairs.

"A new, comprehensive COVID-19 relief package is needed, and it is needed now. The budgets of all colleges and universities are in a shambles because of the pandemic," said Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education's senior vice president for government and public affairs. "The sad fact is that many colleges are racing toward a financial cliff."

Among those left in limbo is Sydoni Elwood.

For 10 years until July, Elwood had been an adjunct professor at the City University of New York's Kingsborough campus, where her job had been to counsel students who were having trouble with writing and to steer them to the tutor she thought best gave them a chance to keep from failing or leaving the university.

Though a lawsuit filed by the union representing CUNY faculty and staff members disputes whether it was really necessary, the system, facing massive cuts from New York City and the state, laid off 2,800 adjunct faculty, including Elwood.

Some hoped help would come from Washington, D.C. Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, CUNY's chancellor, said recently that some adjuncts could be brought back if the financial picture were to change.

Now the prospect of more federal aid coming to colleges or to states to soften their cuts to higher education may have dimmed.

The executive orders do nothing to help Elwood get her job back, pay for her mother's medicine or hope she can continue to work in higher education.

The political stalemate also is leaving in limbo administrators across higher education who have been hoping for more help, including at Coffeyville Community College in rural Kansas, which is facing possible shortages of equipment to help nursing and medical assistant students get the clinical hours virtually to finish their degrees if another coronavirus spike prevents them from being able to train at nursing homes and hospitals.

No deal on a bigger package by Congress would also mean the University of Akron won't get the additional money the university wants to offset the cost of cleaning supplies and protective gear they need as they reopen campus, or money that could let Metropolitan State University of Denver undo the furloughs it announced this year, among thousands of other ramifications on campuses around the country.

"President Trump's executive order does nothing to address the crisis facing our education system. It does nothing to help state and local governments avoid deep cuts to public education, which could be as high as $300 billion over the next two years. It does nothing to help schools reopen safely. It does nothing to pull our child care system from the brink of collapse," Representative Bobby Scott, the Democratic chairman on the House education committee, said in a statement. "And it does nothing to help colleges and universities keep their doors open and avoid widespread layoffs."

Executive Action

Trump's order continues to excuse borrowers from making student loan payments after the current moratorium created in the CARES Act expires on Oct. 1. The action will help, Hartle said. But, he and other higher education officials said, it doesn't begin to solve the crisis higher education faces

Regional colleges and universities "are either physically opening for the fall, going virtual or providing a hybrid combination of in-person classes with online classes. The exorbitant costs of either of these options have exceeded the resources these regional state colleges and universities have at their disposal," Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said in a statement. "These institutions do not have huge endowments or large reserves at their disposal."

Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, lamented that Trump's executive order continues to leave out those with federal Perkins and Federal Family Education Loan Program debt, who were left out of the current moratorium.

And advocates who have been pushing for broader debt relief, like Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis, said Trump's order does not go far enough.

Democrats had been pushing for the government to pay down the balance on student loans so it would be reduced by at least $10,000 for each borrower at the end of the pandemic. Talking to reporters on Friday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said continuing to excuse student loan payments would still leave many deeply in debt. On Sunday, he described the executive orders on ABC's "This Week" as "paltry."

CNN reported that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin told Republican senators in a private call on Friday that one of the sticking points in the negotiations were the Democrats' unwillingness to drop their proposal.

Also left in limbo are a number of other issues that are important to higher education advocates, including reversing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos's decision to deny CARES Act emergency aid to student who are undocumented immigrants.

Elwood watched the finger-pointing in Washington, D.C., from Brooklyn.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, everybody was saying teachers are heroes," she said. "Now it's like they're saying, 'what else do you want? We already said thank you.'"

Public colleges and universities, in addition to losses they have taken refunding room and board after closing dormitories, also are facing cuts in funding from their states, which are teetering from the loss of tax revenue during the recession.

For now, no help is coming to help soften cuts states are making.

For example, the budget signed by California's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, will cut $300 million from the University of California system. The budget also included language that would have instead increased funding for the system by $170 million over last year, but only if the state received $14 billion in federal aid by Oct. 15. The California State University system also could have had its own $300 million cut reduced to $228 million if the state received $2 billion in aid, or had a $195 million increase if the state received $14 billion in federal aid.

It's unclear, however, exactly what impact no additional funding would have. Many universities declined to say what additional measures they would take if no help comes, which Hartle said is unsurprising because university leader are reluctant to talk about "really dire" choices institutions are facing, including program eliminations, salary reductions, benefit cuts, furloughs and layoffs.

A spokesman for the University of California system declined to say what cuts would be made under different scenarios. The California State University system said individual campuses will make those decisions. And most California campuses contacted declined to comment.

Ohio University, which has announced a net cut of 344 positions while citing declining student enrollment, declined to say if it would reduce the job cuts if it received more federal aid. "How additional funding might be used and its potential impact on our operational decisions would largely depend on guidelines provided for the use of those funds," Robin Oliver, Ohio University's vice president of communications and marketing, said in a statement.

Moving On

However, some of the stakes over whether Congress can reach a deal on a relief bill are clear, including the hopes of CUNY adjuncts of getting their jobs back. With the focus about to shift to the Democratic national convention on Aug. 17 and the Republican convention a week after, Elwood said she finally applied for unemployment last Monday, after having no luck finding another higher education position.

"I think the people think we should find any job. But I don't think they realize that for us who went into education, this is what we want to do with our lives. The question I'd like to ask people in Congress is what would they do if they couldn't do the only thing they know how to do?" she said.

Elwood, whose parents are Jamaican, worried about the students who need her help. "A lot of students are reluctant to ask for help and most of the people they run into in education are white women or men. It helped for them to see someone like me who looked like them," she said.

"There's a lot of despair about the future," among the laid-off adjuncts, said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC/CUNY), the union representing 30,000 system employees. "There's a great sense of loss," she said. "They feel so abused and so angry, that they worked for 30 years at CUNY and got a one-sentence letter saying they can't come back."

CUNY isn't alone in hoping more federal aid will ease cuts to workers. MSU Denver laid off 10 employees and announced furloughs of at least five unpaid days for workers making more than $50,000, as the university faces a $14 million budget shortfall.

"These decisions never come easy especially when they directly impact our people who are critical to the success of our students and the community we serve," said George Middlemist, the university's associate vice president for administration and its chief financial officer.

"If there were additional support funds available for FY20/21 to a level where we could restore payroll to faculty and staff, that would certainly be something we would look at," said Tim Carroll, a university spokesman.

Halfway across the country from the university in Brooklyn where Elwood used to work is Coffeyville Community College, which is located in a low-income section of southeastern Kansas, about 80 miles from Tulsa. Nursing, paramedic and lab tech students ran into a problem in March when nursing homes, hospitals and laboratories were closed to the public, which meant the students couldn't get the hands-on clinic hours they needed to get certifications.

The college did have one lifelike electronic mannequin that makes noises depending on what the students do. But having to take turns working on the one mannequin delayed how long it took for the students to get their certification, said Marlon Thornburg, Coffeyville's president.

The college, like many others, has been getting hit from all sides with fewer students in residence halls, cuts in local and state funding and declining enrollment. Its healthcare facilities have reopened, but Thornburg was worried about his students if another spike shuts them down again. More federal money would help the college be able to get more mannequins and equipment, he said.

And the situation could get worse. The state so far has cut about $430 million in spending this year including $41 million from higher education.

"Unfortunately, some of those impacts may include a reduction of course offerings, increased tuition and fees to students, and/or a reduction of force," Thornburg said.

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