The Rising Cost to Colleges as Pandemic Costs Mount for College Students and Campuses, Everyone's Looking to Congress for Help

By Schackner, Bill | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), September 6, 2020 | Go to article overview

The Rising Cost to Colleges as Pandemic Costs Mount for College Students and Campuses, Everyone's Looking to Congress for Help


Schackner, Bill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


On college campuses in Pittsburgh and beyond, the meter is running. Only the expenses this fall go far beyond routine instruction, three squares daily and upscale places to sleep.

Electrostatic disinfectant sprayers, a campus air filtration system enhanced with virus-removing ionizers, and nearly 500 trained "pandemic safety officers" are just a few of Carnegie Mellon University's COVID-19-related expenses.

At the University of Pittsburgh, the cost of doing business now includes a 5,000-square-foot climate-controlled classroom "tent" on the Cathedral of Learning lawn and $22 million in hotel rooms in Oakland to help reduce campus dorm occupancy.

Then there's Penn State University, with 2,000 buildings on campuses statewide, requiring thousands of hand sanitizer stations, not to mention enough virus testing for random, daily checks of almost 50,000 students, plus employees, on the University Park campus alone.

Even as arguments rage over the wisdom of bringing students to campus in a pandemic - and who is to blame if it all falls apart - students, parents and colleges at least agree on this: They worry what it all will cost and if help is coming to pay the bills.

The American Council on Education, an umbrella group for colleges and universities, in July estimated the cost to higher education of reopening safely at $120 billion - with costs incurred so far ranging from residence hall refunds to retrofitting classrooms for online instruction. Many Pennsylvania campuses developed intricate and expensive reopen plans for fall, only to revise them as virus cases spiked this summer, driving a greater share of instruction online, and forcing many students to stay home.

Forecasting who would show up and enroll, go elsewhere or be unable to afford college at all given massive job losses also helped make campus budgeting as predictable as the virus itself. "It's like trying to put a rubber band around jello. It's very fluid," said Molly Mercer, Slippery Rock University's chief financial officer.

In April, the federal government allocated about $13 billion for college and university stimulus funding under the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

Half of it was in grants to students. Many already were struggling to pay tuition and rent before the pandemic hit. Suddenly, they faced expenses such as laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots as campuses shut down midsemester and instruction shifted online.

A potential sequel to the CARES Act is before Congress.

But opinions of what more federal assistance should look like differ, and multiple visions for higher education assistance have emerged. One advanced by Senate Republicans, the $29 billion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools, or HEALS, Act, also includes a $5 billion fund for states that governors can direct as they see fit, some potentially for higher education.

That's billions less than the Democrat-majority House version, passed two months earlier in May. It's called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act, and it earmarks $37 billion to higher education.

The American Council on Education is seeking $47 billion, an amount it says is a fraction of what campuses are spending to hold classes while combating the virus. Its president, Ted Mitchell, drove home the complexity of the problem to senators this summer.

"A framework like that allows districts to think critically about so why are we buying technology?" Mr. Mitchell said. "Is it something that can make teaching better for students?

"Unfortunately, the amount of higher education aid contained in this legislation is inadequate to address the extensive needs of millions of students and families struggling to cope with lost jobs or reduced wages, and colleges and universities (that are) reeling from lost revenues and increased costs."

Costs adding up

A letter that Mr. …

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