Not Trusting that Department of Ed: Looking to Higher Ed Relief via States

Reeling from last week’s attacks on Harvard and Stanford that bullied those schools and others into refusing federal relief allocated to their most needy students, the Young Invincibles this week released an open letter asking the schools to reconsider.

The “Open Letter to College and University Leaders” argues that all schools “should make certain they have taken care of the people for whom the money was intended by Congress: their students.” In the event that all their students have in fact been rescued financially, the Department of Education has already given schools permission to reallocate their funds to nearby colleges.

“Harvard could have sent their money to Bunker Hill Community College. Stanford could have sent theirs to Bay Area community colleges. How could anyone who has followed education for the last three years entrust dollars Congress explicitly directed be put in the hands of students as fast as possible instead back in the hands of this Department of Education?”

The letter from Young Invincibles reinforces criticism by Ben Miller, Vice President for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. Miller argued that the relief funding should have gone through the states in the first place. “Everything’s really, really terrible for everybody,” said Miller to Inside Higher Ed. We caught up with Miller this week to ask him a couple of big-picture questions about relief funding for higher ed.

CounterPunch: You suggest that perhaps relief to colleges should come in the state and local government installment. How much do you think is needed?

Miller: So I think the exact amount needed depends on the total amount provided to states for everything. The less you give states in total, the more your higher ed number probably needs to be, because that’s going to be the place for a lot of cuts.

In general, I think the National Governor’s Association request of $500 billion more for states is probably the minimum of what we need, at least assuming we get back to something looking like normalcy by late summer or early fall. We’ll probably need more if we go longer than that, which is totally possible.

So, at $500 billion total for states, $50 billion, give or take, for higher ed, is probably about right. I’m not sure it’s going to be enough for the whole of the crisis, but it could at least get us through the fall.

If you think about it, total state spending for public higher ed is about $96 billion. So $50 billion that can be spent over a couple of years is a meaningful level of assistance.

CounterPunch: Students are showing signs of resistance, but their tactics are focused on campus administrations. To us, this is like asking cities and towns to take the lead in paying for COVID-19 costs. Would a realistic federal relief plan for campuses be able to help reframe the campus costs of COVID-19 as a federal issue, not a campus-by-campus issue?

Miller: The student reaction on prices is tough. Those who are most vehement about pushback are at expensive private colleges, which makes sense, because their whole value proposition is that they provide that high-touch, in-person experience.

In the public space, my fear is we’ll see massive tuition spikes that aren’t really the schools’ fault. And that’s where you need the state money to avert those.

What the money won’t do is affect the perceived quality of teaching. I think a lot of students out there feel like even the best online option is not giving them equivalent value of the in-person experience. Part of that gets at the fact that the price of what they are paying for is not just the academics but the overall experience. That’s going to be a tough sell and sort of rests on the colleges to figure it out. Now, greater funding would help mitigate that price from going up. But, for those places that are already expensive, it won’t really help them.

In the meantime, what I’m really worried about is what this remote learning environment is going to mean for students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. We definitely need to ensure that some of that additional federal money goes to increase supports for these individuals.


Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at