The time is now for strong federal support of higher education

A version of this blog piece appears as an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News)

Dr. Mary A. Papazian

On Friday, I wrote letters to five key U.S. Senators, including Senators Feinstein and Harris, to request their urgently-needed support for San Jose State University and the entire California State University (CSU) system as we continue to come to grips with the devastating effects our institution faces due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have since written to Speaker Pelosi and several House members as well. Specifically, we are asking legislators to support higher education in the third economic relief package now being negotiated.

The broader higher education community has called for nearly $60 billion in aid for students and institutional fiscal stabilization, nearly $8 billion for digital learning assistance and $13 billion to support research activities.

In alignment with the Chancellor’s Office and driven by our key priorities, I have advocated for emergency supplemental funding and support that would, specifically:

  1. Provide emergency stop-gap funding that would (a) directly support students and (b) help financially stabilize institutions, CSU students, their families and all 23 campuses which are struggling mightily to deal with the economic exigencies brought on by the pandemic. In addition, distributing direct support to students and institutions through the existing Pell Grant disbursement system would get urgently needed funds into the hands of students quickly and allow institutions to address unexpected revenue losses or expenses necessitated by the pandemic. 
  2. Provide technology funding to support transitioning to distance education. All 23 CSU campuses currently are transitioning to fully online learning. This proposal for $7.8 billion in grant funding will make certain that institutions are supported in the transition, while also ensuring that students do not lose access to their education as a result of the shift. 
  3. Enable needed regulatory flexibility. Temporary statutory and regulatory flexibility as it applies to compliance and deadlines as well as eligibility determination and disbursement of Title IV aid will help CSU institutions get financial aid to students rapidly. 
  4. Provide access to capital through low- or no-interest loans. As the federal support funding alone will be insufficient to sustain many colleges and universities, it also is necessary to allow otherwise financially stable institutions to access new zero-interest loans to replace short-term revenue disruptions and expenses incurred as a result of COVID-19.

This support is critical. The impact SJSU will experience over the course of the current crisis—which includes staggering expenses as well as unprecedented levels of lost revenue—is projected to be enormous and could prove to be insurmountable without significant federal assistance. In fact, our analysis shows that the cost San Jose State will be absorbing due to the COVID-19 crisis is nearly $15 million – and that is just through May.

Though I have great confidence and optimism that Spartan Nation will pull through this, the situation remains dire. We have deep concerns that many colleges and universities—especially tuition-dependent public institutions such as ours—will not recover without significant support and assistance.

Over the last two weeks, San Jose State has taken immediate and unprecedented steps to respond to the threat facing our community. We have acted to protect our more than 40,000 students, faculty, and staff and limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, while at the same time continuing to meet our core mission—educating the next generation of creative, dynamic and resilient leaders. The same can be said for the 22 other campuses in the CSU system, which collectively educates nearly a half-million students.

As Silicon Valley’s only public university, SJSU has both unique opportunities and challenges that affect the long-term economic prosperity of our state and our region. More than two out of three of our undergraduate students are from the Bay Area. The vast majority of our graduates stay and work in the region, and SJSU sends more college graduates into the Silicon Valley workforce than any other institution.

We transform the lives of our students and open the doors of social mobility. More than a third of our students are the first in their families to attend college and about half are eligible for Pell grants. More than 40 percent of incoming freshmen and 35 percent of incoming transfer students identify as an underrepresented minority. We are proud of our designation as both a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI). We need to continue to enroll students from a wide variety of backgrounds; make essential investments for our campus to improve the learning environment; support student well-being; and ensure a well-educated workforce vital for our future.

Institutions like San Jose State need support to stay operational to help our nation rebuild from this crisis; this will be exceedingly difficult for many higher education institutions, however, without external support and assistance.

Relief would support universities and colleges as we address the loss of tuition and housing fees, the cost of moving coursework online, the cost of providing additional student support, the facilities and maintenance costs associated with preventing the spread of COVID-19 within our community, and a variety of other unanticipated costs. 

Through their leadership, Governor Newsom and the California Legislature have been unwavering in their efforts to protect and uplift the residents and businesses of our great state, and to support higher education.

Now, today, in this moment of crisis, we need their support—and, more broadly, the support of their federal counterparts—more than ever.

I have high hopes that they will come through.