Latest News on Coronavirus and Higher Education
May 29, 6:37 p.m. President Trump has vetoed a resolution passed by Congress that would have undone U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ controversial borrower defense rule, making it harder for borrowers to have their student debt forgiven if they were defrauded by their colleges.
The move was expected. In February the White House issued a statement opposing the resolution and saying that, if passed, Trump’s advisers would recommend a veto.
But in recent days the hopes of the rule’s critics had increased that Trump might let the resolution go into effect by taking no action before a deadline on Saturday.
The White House didn’t comment on the veto Friday evening. But confirming the veto, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin blasted the move.
“President Trump’s veto of my bipartisan bill to help our veterans was a victory for Education Secretary DeVos and the fraud merchants at the for-profit colleges,” Durbin, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said in a statement. “My question to the President: in four days did you forget those flag waving Memorial Day speeches as you vetoed a bill the veterans were begging for?”
The House had scheduled an override vote on Thursday but postponed it when no veto came. The Republican-controlled Senate must also override the veto, but that’s not considered likely.
The veto also was criticized by Ben Miller, vice president of postsecondary education for the progressive Center for American Progress.
“In issuing his first domestic policy veto, President Trump and Secretary DeVos are choosing to enrich predatory for-profit colleges over justice for cheated veterans and low-income borrowers,” Miller said in a statement. “The administration’s regulation wields legalese and bureaucracy to trap harmed borrowers in a process they have no hope of successfully completing to get their loans canceled, sending a clear message that colleges’ bad behavior will go unpunished. Congress should see this bipartisan effort through and override President Trump’s veto, especially during a pandemic when so many people are suffering.”
May 29, 5:06 p.m. A group of college presidents will be attending a meeting at the White House on Monday, according to one who will be attending and to an education lobbyist.
“I’m expecting a wide-ranging discussion,” including reopening campuses, said one college president. President Trump is expected to participate. A White House spokesman declined comment.
The lobbyist said many of the invited attendees were involved in a call earlier this month with Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, where presidents discussed several issues, including the need to be able to do more testing and colleges’ request for liability protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits. But others who weren’t on the call are expected to attend as well.
The meeting would come as President Trump is encouraging states to reopen and Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate education committee, also said campuses shouldn’t focus on whether to reopen but on how to do it safely. It would also come three days before the presidents of Purdue and Brown Universities and Lane College are expected to testify at an education committee hearing on reopening campuses.
A spokesman for Christina Paxson, Brown’s president, who has advocated for reopening, said she will not be attending the White House meeting. Spokespeople for Purdue’s Mitch Daniels and Lane’s president, Logan Hampton, were not immediately available.
— Kery Murakami
May 29, 3:05 p.m. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s medical experts released specific recommendations on Friday for member institutions to consider as college athletes return to campus facilities and are permitted to voluntarily begin training on June 1.
The guidance was developed by the NCAA’s COVID-19 Advisory Panel and Sport Science Institute, and recommends that colleges evaluate athletes for COVID-19 exposure before they return to campus facilities and “consider asking” athletes and staff to screen themselves for symptoms of the virus at least daily. Athletes and staff members should remain physically distant during strength and conditioning activities and, where distancing is not “feasible,” face coverings should be worn, the guidance says.
As it relates to testing athletes and staff members, the guidance did not set out specific recommendations for if and how frequently institutions should test for COVID-19. It deferred largely to the plans of the various states and localities where institutions are located. At multiple points, the guidance re-emphasized the need for reopening plans to be in tandem with state and local requirements.
The guidance did warn against the “false sense of security” that negative, one-time tests can provide, because they only evaluate for infection at the time the test is administered. Colleges are encouraged to rely on surveillance of athletes’ specific “bubbles” to monitor infections, by tracking the people they are interacting with during athletic activities for the virus, especially for high-contact sports like football. The NCAA also recommended athletic departments develop hygiene strategies to disinfect shared spaces and equipment, such as workout machines, water bottles, towels and medical equipment used by athletes.
Plans to bring athletes back to campus should also align with colleges’ broader reopening strategies, and should consider that “NCAA student-athletes are first and foremost students,” the guidance says. But the precautions for athletes should be given more consideration due to the greater amount of contact they have with one another versus the general campus community.
A statement at the beginning of the guidance addressed those questioning the NCAA’s decision to allow athletic activities to resume next week.
“While some stakeholders have embraced the idea of planning for the reopening of collegiate sports, others have questioned whether it would be better to simply wait until there is no longer a threat from COVID-19,” the guidance said. “A resocialization plan that attempts to properly balance the public health considerations through the identification and implementation of appropriate safeguards provides an alternative to shutting down society and sport indefinitely.”
May 29, 2:13 p.m. Great Lakes Educational Loan Services, owned by Nelnet, reportedly provided incorrect payment information for nearly five million federal student loan borrowers to credit reporting agencies, according to Politico, a mistake that likely lowered borrowers’ credit scores. Great Lakes has apologized to borrowers (see statement, below).
A group of six Senate Democrats, led by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, has written to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to call on the department to “fully remedy this issue,” hold Great Lakes accountable and provide Congress with a detailed accounting of how this “inexcusable blunder” occurred.
The $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act stimulus granted temporary relief to federal student loan borrowers during the pandemic by suspending their payments and interest accrual through Sept. 30. The Democratic senators said a CARES Act implementation guidance said any suspended federal student loan payment should be treated as a regularly scheduled one made by a borrower. Instead, the senators said Great Lakes erroneously reported the CARES Act suspension of 4.8 million borrowers’ monthly payments as deferments.
“It is difficult to know how far reaching the consequences of this error will be for millions of borrowers who might attempt to purchase a home, start a new job or take out a loan to stay financially afloat during this economic crisis,” Warren and her colleagues wrote. “Any error that results in an inaccurate score must be immediately remedied, and those responsible for such mistakes must be held accountable.”
A spokesman for Great Lakes sent the following statement via email:
We apologize for the inconvenience caused by this situation and have been committed to resolving the issue quickly. The CARES Act offers interest-free administrative forbearance on federally-held loans through Sept. 30, 2020. On May 6, Great Lakes reported repayment borrowers to the credit reporting agencies in a manner it believed would not have a negative impact on borrower credit scores. On May 11, Great Lakes began receiving questions from borrowers regarding their credit scores provided through third-party credit services. Immediately, Great Lakes began researching these borrower accounts and determined there was an inconsistency between Great Lakes reporting and that of other student loan servicers. Instead of reporting borrowers as current with monthly payments of $0, Great Lakes reported borrowers as current with deferred monthly payments of $0. That same day, Great Lakes acknowledged the inconsistent coding and let our borrowers know we would adjust the inconsistency in reporting with the credit reporting agencies immediately. We also encouraged borrowers to contact the credit reporting agencies directly for information about their credit, as we believe the scores at the agencies were not impacted. An updated credit file was provided to the credit reporting agencies on May 15, and all four reporting agencies have processed the file. Our priority is providing an exceptional customer experience. When we fall short of our goal, our focus is to communicate openly and resolve the issue as soon as possible.
— Paul Fain
May 28, 5:45 p.m. Weighing in for the first time on the push by colleges to be protected from coronavirus-related lawsuits should they reopen for in-person instruction, Senator Patty Murray said she opposes granting a “liability shield” because it would essentially say, “it’s okay if students or employees get sick.”
The comments by the top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee in a statement to Inside Higher Ed contrast with those of the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander, who backs liability protection. They also come as associations representing colleges and universities earlier in the day called for Congress to provide the protection. The issue is expected to be debated next Thursday when the presidents of Purdue and Brown Universities and Lane College are scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate’s health and education committee on safely reopening campuses this fall.
“Students and parents across the country are depending on colleges and universities to prioritize students’ health and safety. Many colleges are working hard to do the right thing — but they need clear, enforceable standards and guidance from the federal government,” Murray said.
“Instead of just saying it’s okay if students or employees get sick, which is what a liability shield would do, we need to prioritize ensuring that — when the time comes — colleges can reopen safely and in accordance with the advice of public health experts. And as our coronavirus response continues, I’ll continue to ensure that colleges and universities have the resources they need to serve their students,” she said.
Murray also has been critical of demands by the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to protect businesses from potential lawsuits, tweeting, “Congress should be focused on doing everything it can to strengthen protections for workers & ensure they’re as safe as possible from the virus. Instead, Senate GOP are pushing for new corporate protections that will jeopardize workers’ health & safety.”
— Kery Murakami
May 28, 3:52 p.m. New polling results from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia reveal challenges felt by the state’s college students. Over all, 80 percent of students surveyed were worried about their academics, 76 percent faced challenges to their mental health and 45 percent said they were worried about employment.
About one-third of students surveyed reported having technology issues after the quick pivot to virtual learning. Nineteen percent are facing health concerns, and 11 percent are dealing with childcare worries. Nearly one-fifth said they were worried about their financial aid status. Eight percent said they were food insecure, with a similar amount reporting housing insecurity.
In open-ended response questions, students expressed feelings of loss over milestones never to be completed, anxiety over the welfare of others and general stress and fear.
The commission surveyed 1,018 students at Virginia public and private institutions, including public two-year institutions. The survey was conducted April 20 to May 4.
— Lilah Burke
May 28, 11:20 a.m. The nation’s governors should create a public health framework for colleges and universities to follow in order to reopen campuses, their national association said.
In a memo Wednesday, the National Governors Association recommended a number of steps including following the lead of Connecticut Democratic governor Ned Lamont’s reopening advisory group, which laid out a framework recommending steps for colleges to take, including doing testing and contact tracing.
“Reopening higher education institutions will be a critically important and high-profile step for governors who are working to get their state economies back on track. This process will involve complex legal questions for which governors should provide clear guidance,” the association’s memo said.
— Kery Murakami
May 28, 11:00 a.m. Nearly 80 education groups, including associations representing colleges and universities, wrote Congress asking for “temporary” protections from COVID-19-related lawsuits should they reopen campuses.
As first reported by Inside Higher Ed, colleges pushed for protection from pandemic-related lawsuits in a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and before the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago. The effort is part of a broader push by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and supported by Republican congressional leaders, to block lawsuits should students, customers or workers contract the coronavirus.
In the letter to congressional leaders, the president of the American Council on Education, Ted Mitchell, wrote that “as colleges and universities assess how quickly and completely campuses can resume full operations, they are facing enormous uncertainty about COVID-19-related standards of care and corresponding fears of huge transactional costs associated with defending against COVID-19 spread lawsuits, even when they have done everything within their power to keep students, employees, and visitors safe.”
A shield is needed, Mitchell wrote, “to blunt the chilling effect this will have on otherwise reasonable decision-making leading to our nation’s campuses resuming operations in a safe and sensible manner.”
He wrote the protections should be given for colleges “following applicable public health standards, and they should preserve recourse for those harmed by truly bad actors who engage in egregious misconduct.”
Republican leaders in the Senate, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the majority whip, John Cornyn, are working on a proposal to provide the protection for a range of entities. McConnell has said liability protection has to be part of any future coronavirus relief package. It’s unclear when Senate Republicans might release their liability protection proposal, but McConnell said Tuesday he expects Congress to take up another coronavirus package in about a month.
— Kery Murakami
May 27, 6:02 p.m. The presidents of Purdue and Brown Universities and Lane College will testify before the U.S. Senate’s health and education committee next Thursday on “how students can safely go to their college or university this fall,” the committee announced.
In addition to Purdue’s Mitch Daniels, Brown’s Christina Paxson and Lane’s Logan Hampton, Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, will testify. All three of the presidents have advocated physically reopening their campuses this fall; the agenda at this point includes no college leaders who have said their institutions to continue to operate mostly virtually this fall.
Senator Lamar Alexander, the committee’s Republican chairman and former president of the University of Tennessee, expressed confidence to reporters last week that colleges and universities around the country will have sufficient testing capacity and are taking the needed steps to be able to safely reopen their physical campuses this fall.
–– Kery Murakami
May 27, 5:10 p.m. A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators is urging the Education Department to change the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form so students can have reductions in their income considered when they seek aid.
“We are concerned that the current financial situation of students who recently filed, or are in the process of filing, their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) may not be accurately reflected,” the senators wrote in a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “Students and families who have recently become unemployed or suffered a significant drop in income may fail to qualify for the support they need to afford college.”
The letters were signed by two Democrats, Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and two Republicans, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia.
The senators asked DeVos to issue a guidance document stressing that college financial aid administrators are able to exercise their professional judgment and to adjust the income of recently unemployed students to zero. The senators also suggested a number of other steps, including adding a question on the FAFSA form where students can note that their income had been reduced because of the pandemic.
Angela Morabito, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the department is reviewing the letter. “Secretary DeVos continues to use every available avenue to help keep students learning during this national emergency,” she said.
— Kery Murakami
May 27, 2:50 p.m. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities praised the introduction of a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Congress that would dramatically expand the National Science Foundation and pump $100 billion into the agency over five years to increase research in areas like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and advanced manufacturing.
Under the Endless Frontiers Act, the NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation. The new agency would have two deputy directors — one to oversee the NSF’s current operations and another to lead a new technology directorate to advance technology in 10 areas as the U.S. faces greater competition from China and other countries.
“America cannot afford to continue our decades-long underinvestment and expect to lead the world in advanced scientific and technological research,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York. “To ensure our advantage, our bill treats scientific research as a national security priority and provides substantial new investments into funding critical research and development to build the industries of the future in regions across the country.”
The bill and an accompanying version in the House were co-sponsored by Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, and Republicans Senator Todd Young, from Indiana, and Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin.
Peter McPherson, APLU’s president, said in a statement, “Federal investment in R&D has languished in recent decades. As a share of the economy, it’s a third of what it was at its peak. China and other countries, meanwhile, have vastly expanded their investments in research and development. The current pandemic has underscored the critical need to redouble public investment in research and development. We must ensure more of these innovations and advancements take place in the U.S. rather than elsewhere around the globe.”
— Kery Murakami
May 26, 5:46 p.m. Purdue University’s Board of Trustees on Tuesday approved the adoption of a fall academic calendar featuring in-person instruction from Aug. 24 to Nov. 24, without customary university holidays or fall breaks and with the remainder of the semester to be completed remotely. At the same time, the board approved plans for offering remote coursework options to students who cannot or will not come to the Indiana campus this fall.
Purdue’s president, Mitch Daniels, has been especially visible in articulating a case for universities to reopen, despite concerns voiced by some Purdue faculty members about the safety of in-person teaching.
Purdue’s board on Tuesday approved a plans “to de-densify learning spaces on campuses,” by reducing classroom occupancy by approximately 50 percent and limiting occupancy for large classrooms to no more than 150 students. “The space between instructor and student will be a minimum of 10 feet, and mobile plexiglass barriers will be available for additional protection,” the university said in a news release.
Purdue’s board similarly approved plans to “de-densify” on-campus living spaces, “ensuring that each residential space meets the following requirements: square footage per person will meet or exceed 113 square feet, allowing for a radius of six feet per person, or while sleeping, a separation of at least 10 feet head-to-head.”
Other plans approved by the board include plans to implement “more frequent and intensive practices for disinfecting campus facilities” and “adopt a definitional framework for identifying those most vulnerable in the campus community and, thus, at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and to implement a process for making individual accommodations for those for whom it is medically appropriate.”
Finally, the board approved a new university regulation requiring the wearing of face masks while indoors and in any close-quarters setting. It also ratified the Protect Purdue Pledge — a series of individual commitments for monitoring for COVID-19 and maintaining social distancing — and directed enforcement of the pledge as a university regulation.
— Elizabeth Redden
May 26, 3:50 p.m. Appalachian State University will eliminate its men’s soccer, tennis and indoor track and field programs, the Winston-Salem Journal reported. The move will leave Appalachian State with 17 intercollegiate athletics teams, one more than the minimum required to participate in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Another public university located in North Carolina, East Carolina University, last week announced it was cutting athletics teams amid the pandemic and financial crises. ECU eliminated men’s swimming and diving, women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis, and women’s tennis.
— Paul Fain
May 26, 3 p.m. The number of students filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid is still down from this time last year.
Completions of the application started to decline in mid-March, when parts of the country began to shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the National College Attainment Network, which is tracking FAFSA applications.
Application renewals have improved since April but are still lagging behind counts from last year. Through May 15, there have been nearly 4 percent fewer FAFSA renewals than through the same time last year.
Students from low-income backgrounds are not filing or renewing in disproportionate amounts compared to higher-income students.
Applications from students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants whose families have incomes of $25,000 or less are also down by more than 7 percent compared to last year. While renewals increased for students from households making more than $25,000, applications from those making less were still down.
Over all, there were nearly 6 percent fewer renewals from all Pell-eligible students from March 15 to May 15 this year compared to last.
Renewals from students whose households earn $50,000 or more are up slightly — by about 4,100 renewals — compared to last year.
— Madeline St. Amour
May 26, 9:07 a.m. In an interview The Wall Street Journal published over the weekend, University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel said whatever decision the university makes about in-person instruction in the fall will apply through the rest of the academic year.
“What’s going to be different in January?” Schlissel told the newspaper.
The winter semester coincides with the flu season, said Schlissel. And because about half of Michigan’s students are from out of state, both semesters likely will feature an influx of students traveling from COVID-19 hot spots.
Schlissel also told the Journal that the university won’t have a football season this fall unless all students are able to be back on campus for classes.
“If there is no on-campus instruction then there won’t be intercollegiate athletics, at least for Michigan,” Schlissel said. “[I have] some degree of doubt as to whether there will be college athletics [anywhere], at least in the fall.”
An immunologist by training, Schlissel told Inside Higher Ed back in early March that the university was updating its strategy on the COVID-19 pandemic on a daily basis.
“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty and a lot of concern,” he said. “We’re looking at it every single day and asking ourselves, ‘What is the right thing to do?’”
— Paul Fain
May 25, 2020, 1:26 p.m. More than half of college presidents (53 percent) said it was “very likely” their institutions would resume in-person courses this fall, and another 31 percent said it was “somewhat likely,” according to a survey of 310 presidents conducted by the American Council on Education. Presidents at public two-year colleges were less likely (38 percent) than presidents of four-year public (53 percent) and four-year private (58 percent) colleges to say it was “very likely” their colleges would resume in-person courses this fall.
Of the 230 presidents in the survey whose institutions offer on-campus housing, 51 percent said it was “very likely” their campuses would resume in-person housing operations at some point in the fall semester, and 40 percent said it was “somewhat likely.”
The survey asked presidents about whether they plan to take certain specific actions in resuming in-person operations. Their answers can be seen in the two charts below.
College presidents also are broadly forecasting revenue and enrollment declines. Among college presidents projecting enrollment declines for this fall, 45 percent expect a decline of 10 percent or less compared to fall 2019, 50 percent expect an 11 to 20 percent decline and 6 percent expect a 21 to 30 percent decline.
— Elizabeth Redden