A virtual town hall on COVID-19’s impact on higher education was held Monday, led by state Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, and state Rep. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Lafayette, Louisville and eastern Longmont.
Speakers included University of Colorado Boulder’s Chancellor Philip DiStefano, Regent Jack Kroll, Student Government Legislative Council President Sarah Altshuler and Student Body President Ryan Passas. Colorado Department of Higher Education Executive Director Dr. Angie Paccione and Front Range Community College President Andy Dorsey also spoke.
As discussed in the town hall, Colorado has a $13 billion state budget that covers, in part, K-12 education, higher education, Medicaid and human services. As a result of the economic effects of COVID-19, the state budget must be cut by $2 billion.
“There will be some hard times along the way but we’re going to get through this together,” Kroll said.
Despite the budget cuts, the town hall largely centered on what is being done to support higher education in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Kroll, all federal student loans will have zero interest for six months until Sept. 30, during which time borrowers can halt monthly payments without financial penalty.
In addition, as a result of the CARES Act, institutions of higher education are receiving $14.25 billion, 50% of which will go to student financial aid. CU Boulder alone will receive $18.7 million.
Paccione said keeping higher education financially feasible is essential.
According to Paccione, 74% of jobs in Colorado require postsecondary credentials. Many residents will soon be looking for jobs as over 250,000 Coloradoans applied for unemployment following the stay-at-home order.
“We need to make sure that they have a path and a line of sight towards earning a credential,” Paccione said. “It’s more important now than ever.”
In response to the pandemic, the CDHE has begun allowing for flexibility regarding qualifications for financial aid and admissions, including waiving college entrance exams like the ACT and SAT. The CDHE has also begun the No Lapse in Learning drive, collecting tech supplies for in-need students, and Open Education Resources, making online textbooks and learning materials freely available to students and instructors.
Individual institutions have also taken action to address the pandemic’s stress on students of higher education. During the town hall, DiStefano highlighted many of the steps taken by CU. The university is providing online health and support resources, over-the-phone housing advice from attorney Bruce Sarbaugh and online student legal services.
“My top priority as chancellor is the health and safety of our students,” DiStefano said. “That’s what’s going to be driving our operational decisions.”
As well as moving classes online, CU had 92% of students living on campus return to their permanent homes, providing them with prorated refunds and their $300 housing deposits. CU is also guaranteeing continued wages for student workers even if they can no longer work, and is allowing students to change most classes to a pass/fail grading system.
CU Boulder has also launched the Buffs Together campaign, matching $1.6 million in donations to go to two emergency funds for CU students and faculty-staff. The campaign also connects community members to crowdfunding efforts and volunteer opportunities.
Though the town hall focused on the positive actions being taken to combat the effects of COVID-19, Kroll admitted they are currently in a “wait and see period” regarding budgets and economic impacts.
Kroll said federal relief will be significant moving forward and it is still unclear how much relief Colorado will receive. In addition, state and higher education budgets will depend on several factors, including the State Revenue Forecast on May 12 and taxation limitations from Colorado’s TABOR Amendment.
“The only way I see us moving forward with a really healthy funding base for higher education in this state is if we can get a specific tax revenue source to support higher education,” Kroll said.