The Intersection

Postsecondary Pathways Webinar Recap: Financial Challenges in the Wake of COVID-19

October 1, 2020

The conversations happening across all sectors concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recession that followed, and the fight to dismantle systemic racism have revealed the fragilities and inequities existing in certain systems that must be addressed and dealt with. No system has been immune to the effects of this historical moment, especially the American higher education system. Institutions of higher education (IHEs) have felt the adverse effects of disruptions caused by the pandemic and are facing unprecedented financial challenges. IHE leaders have worked tirelessly to ensure that higher education can meet the needs of its students in the current moment, and are thinking about how to address the inequities that have been exacerbated in recent months.

The Hunt Institute sat down with Dr. Harrison Keller of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Dr. Rosa Garcia of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), and Dr. Sue Ellspermann of Ivy Tech Community College to discuss how leaders have been facing the financial challenges of IHEs during the pandemic.


“Our institutions have been rising to the challenge, shifting overnight to remote learning. They’ve been helping with statewide response, providing testing, refocusing research, and helping provide supplies.”

-Harrison Keller, Commissioner of Higher Education, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board


Commissioner Keller provided the state leadership perspective on the subject as someone who has spent much of his tenure as Commissioner leading Texas’s higher education system through the current crisis. Commissioner Keller spoke about the financial impacts of COVID-19 on Texas’s higher education system, noting that the system has seen its greatest revenue hit since the Second World War. Despite this significant revenue loss, Commissioner Keller has been persistent in leveraging the strengths of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board as a facilitator, partner, and advocate for IHEs as they confront the challenges of the current moment. Additionally, Commissioner Keller has been working with Governor Abbott’s office to target federal stimulus funding in ways that support higher education students and displaced workers.


Understanding the Magnitude of the Effects of the Current Crisis


“Communities of color have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 and the economic crisis. We are very concerned that Black, Latinx, and Native American communities have been disproportionately affected.”

-Rosa Garcia, Director, Postsecondary Education and Workforce Development, The Center for Law and Social Policy


Speaking from the national perspective was Dr. Rosa Garcia, who highlighted the work being done by CLASP to address current challenges in the higher education space. For one, Dr. Garcia’s team has been advocating for state and federal policies that increase access to quality jobs for job seekers who face systemic barriers. Additionally, Dr. Garcia spoke about the pandemic’s role in exacerbating equity gaps, noting that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by the effects of the pandemic, dying at higher rates from COVID-19 and facing higher rates of unemployment. Dr. Garcia concluded her opening remarks by pushing a couple critical points. First, leaders must respond to the needs of the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, especially when it relates to the discussion on higher education. Community Colleges, Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been hit especially hard by the adverse impacts of the pandemic. Second, students of color make up more than 45 percent of the higher education students in our country. It is imperative, therefore, for IHEs to make racial and economic justice central components of their work. Finally, Dr. Garcia called on Congress to pass a federal relief package to support these vulnerable populations.


“We’ve been rescaling our system in the last six months to centralize online learning. When we went virtual in March, it was seamless. We helped all faculty to be effective in online learning with the new systems we put in place.”

-Sue Ellspermann, President, Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana


Dr. Sue Ellspermann spoke to the audience from her perspective as a community college leader. Dr. Ellspermann leads Ivy Tech Community College, which has over 40 campuses serving students throughout Indiana. Dr. Ellspermann opened her remarks by stating that equity is an essential component of the institution’s work, noting that 42 percent of the student body is made up of students of color. Additionally, Dr. Ellspermann discussed how Ivy Tech responded to the onset of the pandemic, noting that they transitioned to remote learning on March 1st and since has implemented software to allow labs to run remotely. Finally, Ivy Tech has focused heavily on providing student supports, especially to its most vulnerable students, by using funds allocated via the CARES Act and securing an additional $1 million in private donations to use for supporting students.


Investment and Systems Improvement: How Leaders are Guiding their Institutions


“There’s a growing awareness of the special role and responsibility higher education needs to play in economic recovery. We need to create more room for innovation for our faculty and institutions to accelerate recovery for our state and our nation.”

-Harrison Keller, Commissioner of Higher Education, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board



Dr. Keller returned to the topic of federal stimulus funding, noting that while Texas secured over $1 billion for higher education relief, he hopes that Congress can provide additional support in the coming months and that state leaders can play a role in aligning stimulus funding with larger state policy goals.

Dr. Ellspermann spoke about how Ivy Tech served students before the pandemic and how the institution is expanding the systems to enhance the supports they provide. For one, Ivy Tech has been working to remove the “quality gap” between face-to-face instruction and online education, including by aiming to have the best faculty teaching online classes. Second, Ivy Tech designed a “Learn Everywhere” platform for students who are single parents, giving them the flexibility to switch between online, hybrid, and in-person learning approaches with ease.


“The conversations about racial & economic justice on college campuses and in higher education are long overdue. I’m excited to see what the future holds for students of color and how these conversations can lead to more equitable outcomes.”

-Rosa Garcia, Director, Postsecondary Education and Workforce Development, The Center for Law and Social Policy


Dr. Garcia spoke about her role in helping policymakers better understand the full range of costs associated with school. She explained that policymakers must understand the needs of non-traditional students, noting that many students may be homeless, may experience crises in their families, or may be ineligible for emergency aid because of their immigrant status. Additionally, Dr. Garcia stressed the need for policymakers to meet students’ basic needs, such as housing and healthcare.


Looking Forward: Motivated by Hope


In the final part of the discussion, The Institute asked each panelist about what they are optimistic about in terms of the future of higher education. Dr. Keller is optimistic about the growing awareness among policymakers that leaders will need to educate more people to higher standards, as well as the need for leaders to ensure that everyone, regardless of race and ethnicity, can have the opportunity to succeed in higher education. Dr. Ellspermann spoke about how Ivy Tech faculty have leaned into remote learning in a positive way and will bring the skills accumulated via remote learning back into the classroom. Dr. Garcia is hopeful about the discussions happening around reimagining state-federal partnerships in higher education work. Additionally, Dr. Garcia is optimistic about the push to center racial and economic injustice on college campuses, a conversation which is long overdue. Finally, the speakers expressed optimism about the role higher education systems can play in helping deliver more equitable outcomes for all students.

View the complete webinar recording below.

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