The Texas higher education commissioner said the COVID-19 pandemic is the “greatest disturbance to our colleges and universities since the Second World War,” due to the financial consequences of transferring to online learning.
Two Texas congressmen and the Texas higher education commissioner discussed the pandemic’s over $100 million cost on universities due to the switch to online learning and continued safety precautions in the pre recorded conversation “A Town Hall on Higher Ed” that aired Thursday morning as a part of the 2020 Texas Tribune Festival.
“We saw a sudden increase in cost as institutions had to make changes to keep students, faculty and staff safe, transition their operations online and transition all of their instruction to online, which (was) achieved in the span of about two weeks,” said Harrison Keller, the Texas higher education commissioner. “They also saw the simultaneous collapse of multiple revenue streams, which they were counting on, from housing, food services, athletic events and philanthropy.”
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, gave a total of $1.1 billion to Texas institutions, Keller said. The money was split evenly between emergency aid for students and administrative costs. Keller said many institutions used the money allocated to university administrations to buy hotspots and laptops for students and provide more money for student emergency aid.
“We’re all still trying to wrap our arms around the cost of the pandemic to the institutions, but it’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Keller said. “The investments from the CARES Act have been very helpful, but they don’t begin to cover the full cost to our students and to our institutions.”
State Rep. Chris Turner said the COVID-19 pandemic has set back the 60x30: Educated Population plan. The plan, launched in 2015, aims to improve Texas education with the goal of 60% of Texans ages 25-34 having a higher education certificate or degree by 2030, according to the 60x30 website.
“At the rate we are going, pre pandemic, we will not reach that goal,” Turner said. “The pandemic has obviously set us back further. We have to come together and figure out, what is the right goal (and) how do we achieve that and make up for lost ground?”
State Sen. Brandon Creighton said funding for mental health resources within higher education institutions is a top priority. Creighton wants to not only maintain funding for mental health resources but also follow datametrics to make sure the funding reaches people.
“We’ve been able to increase funding streams for mental health in many categories in the past three budgets,” Creighton said. “The pandemic has caused many different areas of concern that need to be addressed. As we transition into whatever this new normal is, we need to make sure the lives of our students are supported everywhere they possibly can and those resources are on campus for those who need it most.”
Keller said college students have a responsibility to follow safe social distancing and other COVID-19 preventative practices in order to keep their peers safe.
“The students need to be active participants on multiple fronts,” Keller said. “We're seeing problems not in classrooms or dining halls, we’re seeing problems (with) what happens off campus. We need students to be vigilant. The students have a responsibility to keep each other and the faculty and staff safe, and their campuses open.”