Gen Z National Student Leadership Begins Fightback for College Relief

Photograph Source: Sterling College – CC BY 2.0

College students last week gained tenacious footing and found ways to fight back against pandemics of disease and insecurity, but their struggle is still overlooked in the grand scheme of trillion-dollar rescues that focus on fruits, not roots of human flourishing.

After a month-long delay caused by a foot-dragging and mean-spirited Department of Education (ED), a few college students in the last days of April got federal help with the cost of housing, food, child-care, and course materials.

Based on applications they were finally able to file after 6pm April 29, about 2,000 students at Houston Community College received a total of $1.6 million over a 15-hour period, an average of $800 apiece. Half the money requested went into rent.

While this partial rescue of some Houston students was matched here and there, millions more students did not see CARES Act funding by May Day, because many colleges went into the weekend intimidated by an ED warning that more rules could be posted, maybe today, to further restrict the emergency relief funds that Congress passed into law Mar. 27.

Financial aid offices are feeling guarded about ED directives that first secured signed oaths of obedience and then promulgated startling edicts on an irregular schedule. Witness the case of the 13 FAQs that two weeks ago banned emergency relief for undocumented students, foreign students, and citizens who were not already FAFSA qualified for federal Title IV relief, such as Pell Grants. Democrats in Congress complained last week about the ED restrictions, but any wrangling at this point can only aggravate the issue of justice delayed.

National Student Fightback

Last week was also a week of emerging fightback as two national student interest orgs began to shake off shock waves that have stunned higher ed communities since President Donald J. Trump declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency on Friday the 13th in March.

In an open letter to college and university leaders posted Apr. 27, Young Invincibles asked Harvard and Stanford to reverse what they did two weeks ago when the schools refused to accept federal money that was headed in their direction for emergency student relief. The campuses were bullied out of accepting the relief funds, when Trump and others argued that the campuses were rich enough to rescue their own students locally. Young Invincibles argued that federal funding rules would have allowed the schools to give CARES Act money to nearby campuses if there was not sufficient need among their own students.

“Harvard could have sent their money to Bunker Hill Community College,” says the letter, referring to published ED guidelines. “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?”

President Trump and cabinet cadres aimed blazing attacks at well-endowed campuses for the offense of having federal funds given them to help students with emergency relief. As it turns out, the same rule makers who restricted the funds to FAFSA qualified recipients and who gave campuses the ability to share with neighboring campuses were—those very same rule makers–not interested in the speedy flow of relief according to the rules they made. Instead, they took the opportunity to shame well-endowed schools for having the wherewithal to be well-endowed in the first place.

A statement by Stanford on Apr. 22 totally dressed itself in the fast fashion of vicious resentments enunciated by Trump, et al. Stanford talked about its own identity in relation to “smaller colleges,” completely forgetting that half the money was mandated to go into the hands of students, not any college of any size, or that all of the money could have directly helped students with housing, food, child care, and technology.

Meanwhile, news out of California indicates that Stanford is likely engaging in predatory labor practices in the way it laid off workers. One rule of CARES Act funds requires institutions to preserve jobs as far as practically possible. So, how do we make the case that Stanford couldn’t have allocated millions in emergency relief for its students, allowing more people to cope with California rent notices, meanwhile shuffling some of its fungible “bigger university” money to workers, who, by the way, also have May rent, June food, and child care bills to pay.

Another example of pushback came from Student Defense, the National Student Defense Network, which filed a class action lawsuit on Apr. 30 against ED and its Secretary Elisabeth DeVos for unlawful garnishment of wages for student loan payments. ED had promised in a press release of Mar. 25 that wage garnishments would be stopped immediately, two days before the CARES Act banned the practice through Sept. 30. On the day Trump signed the CARES Act, DeVos addressed the President at a White House coronavirus task force press briefing and declared that garnishment had been stopped, “altogether.”

On Apr. 21, The Washington Post reported that ED was “dragging its feet.” Letters had not yet been sent to employers directing them to stop the garnishments. On Apr. 24, as the Student Defense lawsuit alleges, a paycheck was garnished belonging to 59-year-old home health care aide Elizabeth Barber, who is paying for an unfinished psychology degree, and whose earnings total about $20,000 a year. Barber and Student Defense are suing in behalf of all federal student loan borrowers “from whom the Department is garnishing wages in violation of the CARES Act.”

Distractions of Indignity

The Trump thump on the heads of world-historical campuses, combined with the petty indifferences of ED, are not only cruel tactics. Their cruelty has strategic effect, provoking controversies over petty cash while world-historical deals are cut, out of sight, denominated in trillions.

The CBO shared a few slides in preparation for its Apr. 28 briefing before the House Budget Committee, projecting that the US labor force will suffer an 18-percent depression-sized reduction in Q3. Real GDP will contract 12 percent in Q2. The federal deficit will run to $3.7 trillion in fiscal 2020, up from the $1 trillion widely expected before Spring Break.

As a result of this wartime-level deficit spending, not seen since 1945, the federal debt will rise from the 79 percent of GDP that we saw in 2019 to–wait for it–108 percent of GDP in 2021. That’s a virtual 30 percentage point rise in the national debt because of pandemic costs.

While a multi-trillion-dollar Trump pump in debt and deficit deployment is underway, he’s got his cabinet down in the weeds, bickering with us over chump change. I am not saying that the money is meaningless to the people who need it. I am not saying that Young Invincibles or Campus Defense should stop fighting for the dollars they can rescue. What I am arguing is that while we are engaged in those tactical battles, we have to maintain strategic capacities of analysis. Almost two months into this national emergency, no serious federal program for college relief has been dealt into the cards. We have not grasped the world-historical scope of our higher ed struggle.

No Money to Follow

Do the states have the capacity to support our college economies? Last Monday, the going estimate from the National Governor’s Association was that half a trillion in Congressional support would be needed to keep state budgets from collapsing. By Wednesday morning, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), having previewed the CBO slide show, clarified the predicament.

States will be lucky to face $110 billion in shortfalls in 2020, says CBPP. Come 2021, we are looking at a $350 billion shortfall, the worst of the century–worse than the dot com bust of ’01 or the financial crisis of ’08. And if we do manage to get a handle on this pandemic, then the shortfall for 2022 will only be $190 billion. Total state shortfalls for the three-year war on COVID-19? $650 billion. Do we prime that pump today, or do we wait?

Take Texas for example. With an economy of a quarter-million college students, do you think Texas will step in and save its colleges from unforgettable cuts? The speaker of the Texas house is already requiring state agencies to cut budgets. If you think this is not a leading indicator, please go find me some flag-wrapped gun-toting protester who is planning to volunteer their personal income tax for the first time in Texas history. Either that–or assume austerity of the grim-season kind.

Roots for Gen Z

If states don’t step up, if the federal government doesn’t weigh in with a trillion-dollar deal, will we ask students to soak up tuition increases and bundle them into another generation of loans?

Forty percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 are hanging onto a college dream. Editor Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Edreports that consensus estimates are converging on a 20 percent decline in enrollment for four-year colleges come Fall 2020.

“In the meantime,” higher education expert Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress tells CounterPunch, “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 federal money goes to increase supports for these individuals.”

As Miller worries, the combination of economic trauma and technology-intensive solutions will surely aggravate social inequalities, hurting rising classes most among Black and Latinx communities, even as the US is emerging as a majority minority society.

The national flotilla of higher ed has been set adrift. We have an officially declared national emergency that has devolved into campus-by-campus recriminations. Every local battle over tuition and fees overlooks the compulsory pressure of global pandemic and internalizes the assumption that our struggles are not worth national relief. As a result, each and every campus will contribute to declining national labor participation. In the end, the objective futility of a campus-by-campus strategy will impair college opportunities for Gen Z across the board.

So where is national leadership in this struggle? Last week, Young Invincibles and Student Defense established a kind of bulkhead for a national student struggle. Under normal circumstances the timing is lousy. The last thing you want to see is student momentum only beginning to build as we head into final exams. Technology and social media may offer hope, that is, if it these methods can withstand onslaughts of resentment and discrimination that are already dominating trending discourse.

Are we seriously going to drift along into a COVID-19 solution for higher ed that will effectively offload the cost of this debacle onto upstream cargos of student debt? We are already in this moral equivalent of war together, as one Harvard professor nearly said. Are we going to fight to win it?

If this debate ever works its way to #trending, and if we are bold enough to talk in terms of trillion dollar deals, I hope we will consider the counsel of that world-historical educator, Confucius, who in his higher education mission statement of 500 BCE declared, “It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered. It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for.” While we make visible efforts to protect the earned fruits of Boomers, Millennials, and generations in between, it cannot be the case that we silently care slightly for the roots of Gen Z.

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