Abstract: The article provides sourced commentary and analysis regarding public health and economic returns stemming from public investment in higher education. The author uses the coronavirus/COVID19 global pandemic to illustrate higher education’s value for public and economic health and for the State of New Jersey in particular.
It will be tempting for public actors to target public colleges and universities for cuts in the near future. Superficially, that is an easy calculation to make for politicians, public education generates (some of) its own revenue through tuition, and only a subset of the population enrolls at any given time. Thus, cuts to higher education generally appear to be the proverbial ‘low hanging fruit’ when public finances are troubled. That rule holds firm in the recent coronavirus pandemic. Institutions have already been understandably denied expected appropriations. In spite of those cuts, institutions of higher education across the country have kept their students as financially whole as possible while maintaining high-quality instruction through a rapid migration to remote and online learning. Not only was this migration required by public health orders, but it was the smart and right thing to do. Despite the technical glitches, learning curves, disappointments of missed events, commencement ceremonies, and year-end experiences, educators and students appear to have met this unprecedented challenge. For all of that sacrifice, effort, and success, higher education is nevertheless headed for stormy seas.
Beyond this year’s cuts, higher education leaders are expecting drastic appropriations reductions, cuts to research contracts, freezes on operational spending and hiring, potentially dramatic enrollment declines (concerns over health, and as families recover from lost economic ground), lost revenue from housing and meal packages, are forecasting a loss in philanthropic donations, face pressures to freeze or reduce tuition levels, will need to engage in a range of cost-saving or cost-cutting measures, and most importantly, will be expected to still deliver their missions, all while adapting to the evolving needs of their student populations in light of the pandemic. While it is logical to expect that the pressures on public finance will result in necessary appropriations reductions for public agencies throughout the entirety of the United States, it’s worth stating that a pandemic is no time to slash critical quality of life investments, indeed New Jersey would be wise to prioritize them.
The tragedy that is the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overstated. As of this moment, 300,000 people across the globe, over85,000 Americans, and almost 10,000 Garden-Staters have lost their lives to it. Sadly, these numbers will continue to grow even as the outbreak slows. To place that in context, the Center for Disease Control’s most recent number on fatalities related to drinking and driving in the United States is about 10,500 deaths per year, which in addition to the senseless loss of life, costs $44 billion per year. These figures are not intended to be a grim apple to apple comparison, nor does it mean to suggest the loss of human life can or should be measured in dollars, but they are illustrative of both the scale and toll of this new public health crisis. While we will forever grieve the loss of life that we have faced, we too will have to wrestle with the massive and unfolding economic crisis left behind. Already, the State of New Jersey is anticipating a multi-billion dollar revenue shortfall for this year, and the next year looks equally bleak. Governor Murphy and Senate President Sweeney have been transparent on this subject, both are foregoing any rose-tinted outlooks, and have advocated for additional federal aid. Both have indicated a need for, and support, at least some, additional borrowing measures. Their concerns are echoed by elected officials at virtually every level throughout the State, including members of the State’s congressional delegation.
Governors and state legislative leaders will soon face choices that have never been envisioned much less anticipated and even the playbook left from the “Great Recession” offers little guidance. Public health measures and life-saving investments will rightfully be prioritized moving forward, regardless of consequences to other public programs, and the hit facing higher education, whatever that might be, will be severe. This hit will be compounded by decades of reduced public support for higher education that has already shifted financial burdens onto the backs of our nation’s young people. In the short-term many institutions will respond to pressures to maintain affordability through tuition freezes, but as economic uncertainty hangs in the air, many expected enrollments will be postponed, further exacerbating the revenue crunch colleges and universities are facing from reduced appropriations.
The result will be barebones operations and a reduction in vibrancy in research and teaching missions. Beyond appropriations cuts, industry and government agency-driven research, and contracts might logically slow. Some of this surely can be weathered, (as this semester proved) higher education leaders have shown they can do more with less, be flexible, and creatively meet the needs of their students and still foster entrepreneurism and innovation. However, we have also seen the extraordinary power and value of what investing in higher education brings to the table, and why investments to higher education remain critical for the State’s public and economic health.
Higher education fosters collaborative environments where expertise is shared and leveraged across disciplines, across the nation, and across the globe. It is the Petri dish where research scientists, engineers, social scientists, and medical professionals (among others) collaborate to holistically meet current challenges and to better anticipate the challenges of the future. Writ-large higher education exists to expand upon, and generate new knowledge, educators use those insights to challenge and prepare students, and the sector broadly shares findings and conclusions for public consumption. In many instances, including during this pandemic, new technologies are developed; groundbreaking solutions are hypothesized, researched, tested, and deployed. Faculty and students, from NJ universities alone, have developed blueprints for 3D printable masks, intubation shields, and testing swabs. They have engineered new forms of personal protective gear, new forms of coronavirus testing, led efforts to support students across the globe as they transitioned to online study, developed usable forecasting models, found ways to maintain critical hospital infrastructure, and translated complex medical data for the general public and decision-makers. They have maintained learning environments, critical research centers, and ceremonial recognition of accomplishment.
These developments alone are worthy of recognition and further investment. Moreover, Universities have met demands that are not entirely within their academic scope. They have provided housing access for students in need. They have organized food pantry drives and food distribution for frontline workers and the needy. They have done everything possible to provide health screenings and mental health resources for their populations. In many instances, faculty, staff, and students have voluntarily placed themselves in harm’s way to help their communities.
Investments in higher education not only enable individual institutions to thrive and maintain their own critical missions but those investments, in turn, empower individuals with advanced economic mobility. Furthermore, investments in higher education enable a robust economic engine. Cities and towns thrive on the economic impacts of their local universities. Local businesses, vendors, and charities all benefit from student, faculty, and staff spending and donations. Institutions have served as anchor infrastructure for local, regional, and state economic growth. Employers, including NJ’s largest, need a sophisticated and credentialed workforce so that high paying and stable careers are maintained in our state; and our state can hardly afford massive out-migration of residents.
NJ has long been a national leader in students leaving their home-state for higher education opportunities, and once these bright and talented minds leave it is unlikely they return. Long known as the “brain drain,” This phenomenon has been met with various pieces of public policy, including the celebrated NJ Stars program that provided a tuition-free community college experience for qualifying students, a recently expanded tuition-free community college program, investments in state-supported financial aid,efforts to align affordable and stackable credentialing from high school through graduate school, and most recently a program announced by 10 NJ public colleges and universities offering incentives for students who have left NJ for higher education to, “Come Back Home.” All of these efforts will be betrayed by the draconian cuts forecasted, and will result in the furthering of economic stagnation, the loss of talented students, and the erosion of major corporate installations who can no longer obtain their workforces. If other harbingers of population loss, beyond what our state loses in the brain drain are to be trusted,we will swiftly lose our ability to innovate, and our state will lose its ability to effectively compete in an increasingly competitive global economy.
Prior to the pandemic, NJ’s public finances were nothing to envy and our state faced many structural and policy challenges.However, what we have recently done well as a state is leverage our institutions of higher education to stand up our economy and gentrify regions of our state that are beleaguered. Our state cannot afford to lose the ground gained from these investments, especially at a time where institutions of higher education have rapidly demonstrated their value to both public health and economic vitality. The higher education, innovation, and workforce ecosystem of our state have anchored major industry here, it has enabled our state to be among those with the highest degree of education, and highest per capita incomes. Preserving those elements are not only desirable in and of themselves, but they are also attractive for inviting new residents and young families to our state, they are necessary for the long term trajectory of the State’s quality of life. NJ should seek to lead here, and make a strategic investment in the health and welfare of our citizens, be novel, be creative, be smart, and also beware of the temptations of low hanging fruit.
Sean M. Fischer, Ed.D.
Sean M. Fischer has spent 15 years as a senior leader and advancement professional in NJ’s higher education sector, spanning both open-admissions and selective-admissions institutions. In addition, he teaches college-level courses in United States History and United States Government. He is a lifelong New Jersey resident, presently residing in Vineland. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in history from Rowan University, a master’s degree in political science from Villanova University, and his Doctorate in education from Creighton University.
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