Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” seems more relevant now than ever, especially for institutions of higher education.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a major disruption to colleges and universities this spring when most had to close campuses and transition to remote or online instruction in the spring. Furthermore, these institutions are having to address impacts of the virus on admissions, enrollment, student support services, athletics and more.
One longtime education leader in Arkansas believes colleges and universities first simply have to survive the pandemic. For 46 years, Dr. David Rankin worked at Southern Arkansas University (SAU) and served as president for his last 13 years before retiring in June of 2015. He now serves as the President Emeritus of SAU.
Rankin referenced Dylan’s song to describe the current state of affairs for institutions of higher education during an interview with Arkansas Money & Politics.
“In terms of an extreme disruption in lifestyle and economics, the effects of the pandemic are similar to the Great Depression and World War II,” Rankin said. “These effects will most likely also change how budgets are organized. Universities need to be better prepared and have bigger reserve funds. This pandemic has been truly historic, and another one could happen again.”
As state funding for higher education has declined over the years, institutions have raised tuition costs and become more reliant on room-and-board fees. Generally, reserve funds can provide financial stability to institutions when there are shortfalls or economic collapses.
“There are two reasons the cost and fees associated with attending college have increased. The most obvious reason is the lack of state funding. The other reason is that students are simply wanting more when they attend college — better resident halls, more recreational facilities, the latest technology,” Rankin said. “Some parents and students will visit multiple colleges to compare campuses, facilities and services, which can play a huge role in making a decision.”
With tuition costs rising, it makes sense that parents and students want to make sure they are receiving a valuable education with the necessary resources to succeed. But, when campuses closed earlier this year due to COVID-19, many demanded refunds for room and board.
Earlier this March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act — a $2 trillion economic stimulus package.
“The amount of refunds for room and board is millions of dollars. The CARES Act provided nearly $14 billion to college students and institutions of higher education. The state of Arkansas received $130 million. Half went directly to students, and the other half went to institutions,” Rankin said. “Institutions of higher education will use it to survive. Without it, they would be in a horrendous situation in terms of lost revenue.”
According to Rankin, traditional college campuses still have to appeal to students with the sense of community, belonging and connections and will continue to do so. However, technology and the ability to offer education online will expand and increasingly become part of a defining factor of an institution.
In terms of the future for higher education, Rankin sees some institutions disappearing or merging.
“They are going to need to find different revenue streams and expect contingencies. The trend of having a revenue stream from those who attend institutions will not change. However, there should be more opportunities for work-studies and scholarships. The Pell Grants also help low-income students tremendously and should be raised.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid provides financial aid to students enrolled in school each year who have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid (FAFSA). Federal Pell Grants are usually awarded only to low-income undergraduate students. The amount changes, but the maximum is $6,345 for the 2020-21 award year. Unlike loans, Federal Pell Grants do not have to be repaid.
“We live in a period of change in daily life. The world of education and communication is changing,” Rankin said. “Regardless, I just think it is important for students to think about the competitive world we live in. Post-secondary education can really help develop skills and provide experiences that will prepare individuals for the future. They can discover their talents and define what sets them apart from others.”