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COVID-19 & Ohio Higher Education: Uncertainty looms, but here is what we know

It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks. COVID-19 has disrupted every corner of society, including academia.

We applaud faculty across Ohio who have risen to the challenge of moving courses online, holding virtual office hours, adapting materials, and doing everything possible to ensure that students stay on track. This has been no small feat, but nothing is more important than our students’ success. We will continue to do what is necessary to deliver the highest quality education under these circumstances. 

Of course, we also applaud and thank the workers on the front lines who are caring for patients, making sure we have groceries, and keeping our communities safe. Let’s do our part to support them by staying home.

There is a lot of uncertainty as we move forward. There are legitimate concerns of the financial impact to universities and how that will affect the professoriate. But here is what we do know and what we can do.

Help from the federal government
In the recently passed $2 trillion federal stimulus package called the CARES Act, there is $12.81 billion for the “Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.” This is direct funding to colleges and universities to help mitigate the short-term impacts of COVID-19.

It was reported, however, that higher education institutions had requested upwards of $50 billion as the amount needed to withstand this crisis. There is hope that a second stimulus bill will be considered and higher education will get another boost in the future.

In order to receive the education stimulus money, states must promise to meet a “maintenance of effort” requirement. This means that Ohio would have to maintain the average funding from the three previous fiscal years for the next three fiscal years to get this funding. However, the legislation granted authority to Education Secretary DeVos to waive this requirement.

Preliminary figures are available for what each public, private, and for-profit institution in the country is poised to receive from the stimulus. Click here for those estimates. Ohio numbers start on page 107.

In addition, there are a couple of measures in the CARES Act aimed at granting a little relief to student loan borrowers:

1) Payments on loans held by the Education Department are suspended through September 30 of this year, and interest is waived through that duration. Anyone can continue making payments on their loans during this time, though.

2) Employers can make tax-free payments up to $5,250 on each employee’s student loans through January 1, 2021. This is not considered taxable income to employees.

These are by no means solutions to the massive student debt problem. Congressional Democrats had pushed for student debt cancellation as part of the legislation, but Republicans balked at the proposal.

State support is ominous
Ohio is set to receive $4.5 billion from the CARES Act. However, in the wake of massive unemployment claims and a precipitous drop in state tax receipts, Gov. DeWine has asked state agencies, including the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE), to cut 20% of their budgets.

Unfortunately, Ohio has a history of balancing budgets on the back of higher education, and if Secretary DeVos waives the aforementioned “maintenance of effort” requirement, the DeWine administration may view the specific federal stimulus dollars to higher education as a reason that State Share of Instruction and the Ohio College Opportunity Grant “can afford” to be cut. However, if DeVos does not waive the requirement, Ohio higher education funding still could get cut but would receive no federal aid to help replace it.

On March 30, OCAAUP President John McNay sent a letter to ODHE Chancellor Randy Gardner stressing the importance of higher education funding, especially as unemployed Ohioans seek educational opportunities during the economic recovery. We will continue to communicate with state leaders about the importance of supporting our colleges and universities.

Unlike the federal government, the state government cannot borrow or print money and is required to have a balanced budget, so it is limited in what it can do to solve this budget crisis. The state has a “Rainy Day Fund” of $2.7 billion. DeWine has indicated a willingness to dip into the fund, but even an additional $2.7 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to the revenue Ohio is losing and will continue to lose in the coming months.

What we can do
Now is the time for our chapters to engage with administrators about how resources will be spent in the wake of this crisis. If cuts are to be made, they must be made to endeavors peripheral to the academic mission. We cannot accept any reductions to faculty positions if administrations, athletics, and pet projects remain unscathed. At worst, there should be shared sacrifice across our institutions.

As the entire nation focuses on the necessity of supporting essential workers, we believe that it is time for our colleges and universities to re-prioritize–to make maintaining the numbers of full-time instructional faculty a priority. Although we certainly recognize the important contributions of university administrators and staff, over the last four decades, just about everything peripheral to our institutions’ educational missions has been given a higher priority than instruction.

Additionally, we must be vigilant that administrations do not misuse this crisis to impose long-term increased teaching loads, shift more teaching online, eliminate programs, lay claim to intellectual property, or even try to thwart our union contracts.

One of many lessons we have learned already from this crisis is that the American economy derives its strength from labor. We are proud to be an association that represents the hardworking faculty of academia. Keep up the great work, and we will keep you posted on further developments.

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