Policy brief from the University of Pennsylvania lays out principles to guide state policymakers through higher education’s trying summer and beyond

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Higher education experts call on state governors to form taskforces to reorient higher education coming out of the current crisis

Media Contact: 

Jeff Frantz, Senior Associate Director of Communications
frantzj@upenn.edu | 215-898-3269

*Note for TV and radio: The University of Pennsylvania has an on-campus ISDN line and ready access to a satellite uplink facility with live-shot capability.

PHILADELPHIA — State lawmakers and public higher education officials are facing their toughest summer since the Great Recession.

Massive state budget shortfalls and lost revenue at colleges because of the Covid-19 pandemic are making for a scary budget season. Forty million Americans filed unemployment claims in May, and many will need retraining before their next job with a livable wage.

At the same time, higher education institutions are being challenged to finally make overdue changes to better serve those who have traditionally been left out and left behind.

What’s the way forward? A new policy brief authored by Penn GSE higher education expert Joni Finney, Scott Pattison, a senior fellow with the University of Ottawa Institute for Fiscal Studies and Democracy, and Kristin D. Hultquist and Martha J. Snyder, from HCM Strategists, lay out a path.  

The authors, nationally-recognized experts on state funding of higher education, call for governors to appoint statewide taskforces to provide policy leadership in shaping a long-term, coordinated, and robust strategy for higher education to address twin imperatives: broadening opportunity for those who have been excluded from higher education and propelling the nation and states to higher levels of economic prosperity.

The authors also provide guiding principles for policymakers as they enter this year’s budget process and also inform the ongoing work of these taskforces.

“The stakes are too high for states to repeat the mistakes they made after the Great Recession,” Finney said. “With smart policy choices, public colleges can become the key vehicle for moving people from unemployment to reemployment, while changing practices to give students of color an equitable educational opportunity.”

"This generation of state executives and legislators will be known for the way they develop education budgets in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is imperative that they not just spend more money on higher education, they spent it very differently and effectively," said Hultquist, founding partner of HCM Strategists. "Our checklist of first principles outlines the right path forward in the wake of this historical crisis." 

These guiding principles include:

Invest in colleges and universities that can best serve the unemployed — Many of those recently laid off will need additional training or education before they can get a new job, but they probably can’t afford either.

States should focus on high-quality, short-term workforce certificate programs as well as associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs at the places that already excel at this type of education: regional colleges and universities, community and technical colleges, and in some states, independent not-for-profit institutions. Programs should be tailored to upskill individuals to return to their same field of work, or, for those whose jobs have disappeared permanently, to train and educate them for other fields.

Invest in a state-incentive grant program to advance the development of effective and equitable online and hybrid learning models — This spring showed the potential benefits and challenges of online models for teaching, learning, and student supports. States — and these should be state or system-wide efforts — should now invest in the development of online and hybrid models, particularly those that demonstrate effectiveness for diverse student populations, including first-generation college students, adults, people of color, and students from low-income families.

Freeze tuition increases in public regional colleges and universities and in public community colleges — These institutions are best suited to provide workforce training and serve those who missed out on the economic growth after the Great Recession. State (or state-backed system) commitments to freeze tuition should be combined with actions to reallocate substantial state appropriations toward these institutions. Use the freeze to develop long-term sustainable tuition policies that are grounded in the economic conditions of the students they serve.

Support gradual and moderate tuition increases, in line with growth in median family income, in public research universities — These institutions serve a disproportionate number of higher-income students. States should allow them to gradually increase tuition, while reallocating some funding to regional and community colleges. In exchange for allowing tuition to rise, states should require these institutions to (1) increase access for and fully fund the financial need of a specified percentage of low-income students and students of color; and (2) accept an agreed upon percentage of transfer students from community colleges. 

Explore alternative revenue sources for institutions that are repositioning or expanding their workforce programs and for those engaging their research enterprises to respond to current health challenges — Public–private partnerships can be expanded to bring in private investment; state reserves and rainy day funds can be tapped; lines of credit, backed by the state government, can be accessed; and commercial low-interest loans can be considered. The loans can be forgiven or paid off by the state, as state and local revenues stabilize, if colleges and universities meet their accountability expectations associated with workforce preparation.

Utilize educational facilities for workforce training and degree programs during evenings, weekends, and summers — This will allow more students to attend even as Covid-19 safety measures are put into place, and allow students to participate who might not be able to attend during morning or afternoon classes.


Penn GSE is one of the nation’s premier research education schools and is currently ranked #2 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. No other education school enjoys a university environment as supportive of practical knowledge-building as the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania. The School is notably entrepreneurial, launching innovative degree programs for practicing professionals and unique partnerships with local educators, and the first-ever business plan competition devoted exclusively to educational products and programs. Catalyst @ Penn GSE is a center for global education innovation that connects people and ideas to develop new ways to advance education in novel and meaningful directions.

HCM Strategists provides support and strategic guidance to help clients form policy priorities and advance organizational success, driving impact in the channels of K-12 education, postsecondary education, and connecting learning and work. We are a group of policy advocates and strategists who are committed to working toward equitable and meaningful change. We are seasoned experts who bridge the gap between public policies and the people they affect.

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