Imagining a New Deal for Higher Education

A vision for a more equitable and sustainable future.
By Lisa Levenstein and Jennifer Mittelstadt

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and upended colleges and universities, students scrambled to pack up dorms and apartments while faculty abandoned their offices and frantically moved labs and lectures to Zoom. Meanwhile, a burgeoning financial crisis in higher education was on the horizon. Locked in our homes, we learned that colleges and universities were losing money as students demanded refunds on housing and summer enrollments declined. COVID-19 was also affecting state legislatures, which would be hard-pressed to sustain prepandemic levels of funding.

By late March, members of Congress acknowledged but failed to stem the mounting crisis. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided $14 billion to colleges and universities, $10 billion less than it provided to the airline industry, which employs only one-sixth of the workers found in higher education. Lacking substantial government support, college and university administrators began to unleash a tidal wave of cuts while maintaining tuition at historically unprecedented highs even as students and their families lost the ability to pay bills. By the end of June, more than two hundred institutions had implemented layoffs, furloughed employees, or failed to renew contracts—affecting more than fifty thousand employees. At the City University of New York, one of the largest public higher education systems in the nation, 2,800 adjunct faculty members lost their jobs. 

Across the country, groups of staff, faculty, and students immediately resisted. Some institution-based efforts rallied communities to protect a targeted campus or department that was scheduled for closure. Distinct constituencies launched other campaigns—undergraduate students needing more financial aid, graduate students asking for research funding extensions, or staff unions seeking to postpone furloughs. In April, staff, faculty, and local elected officials rallied in Vermont to prevent the closure of three campuses in the Vermont State College system. Local faculty unions sued in Ohio and New York to stop cuts. And graduate students at the University of Chicago, the University of Virginia, Brown University, and elsewhere drafted petitions for extensions of funding needed to finish their interrupted dissertation research.

In April, Jennifer Mittelstadt invited a few faculty members from public and private universities across the country to meet on Zoom to discuss how we could contribute to such efforts. Together, we determined that while each college campus had its own distinct financial problems, the crisis was a general one, so the solutions—and our advocacy—required targeting at the federal level. We began to reach out to some of our colleagues across the country to inquire whether they would like to help craft a united approach to general reform of higher education—across regions and institutions and across different subsets of campus communities.

Analyzing the Crisis

As historians, we turned to the past for understanding and inspiration. The magnitude of our current crisis prompted us to consider previous times of overwhelming national disruption. We landed on the Great Depression of the 1930s. In that crisis, many asked not only what had provoked the stock market crash of 1929 but also what the resulting financial implosion suggested about broader failures in the economic and social system. We began to ask similarly hard questions about which problems facing higher education resulted from the onset of the pandemic and which ones reflected longer-term, more systemic issues.

We concluded that most of the current financial problems had deep roots. As nearly all of us inside higher education knew, even before the pandemic hit, most institutions of higher learning (aside from the elite institutions with large endowments) were experiencing hard times. Decades of funding cuts by state legislatures, in particular, had sapped public universities. In 1990, higher education funding accounted for nearly 15 percent of state spending on average, and now it constitutes only 9 percent, according to a 2018 policy brief prepared for the Midwestern Higher Education Compact by David Tandberg and Sophia Laderman. Since 2001 alone, direct state spending on higher education has declined from $9,500 per full-time student to $7,600 per full-time student after adjusting for inflation, a loss of 20 percent.

All the while, many institutions added to their own expenses by hiring a large and costly class of new “higher education managers,” giving them mid-six-figure salaries while cutting salaries and positions of faculty members, librarians, maintenance staff, and service employees. In a competitive hunt for high-tuition-paying students, they built extravagant dormitories, expended millions on fancy food courts and dining halls, and pinned their hopes on revenues from television contracts for football and basketball. They passed costs on to students and their families in the form of ever-higher tuition and to employees in the form of position cuts and stagnating or falling wages.

Looking around the country, we saw how this history and these practices have been shaping the decisions of college and university leaders about how to handle the COVID-19 crisis. Their efforts reminded us of the Depression-era president Herbert Hoover and his business allies who, in the face of a worsening global economic crisis, recommended more of the same toxic measures that had produced the crisis: no regulation, no deficit spending, no safety net, and no public employment. We took our inspiration from what followed Hoover—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which dramatically reimagined the role of the federal government. The New Deal was not a perfect model—not even close. Its lack of commitment to gender and racial equity fostered inequalities that we find ourselves fighting in higher education today. But both its successes and its failures prompted us to ask how we could do better. New Deal policies reshaped our country’s institutions, making them more expansive, while providing direct aid to improve the lives of ordinary people. In the spirit of the New Deal, we’re asking for higher education reform and greater funding at the federal level, and this time we’re aiming for full justice and inclusion.

Just as Roosevelt and others in his administration saw the Great Depression as an opportunity for fundamental reform, we see the pandemic as exposing long-standing problems in higher education that require broad-based solutions. Institutions of higher learning desperately need substantial direct aid from the federal government. But we believe that it is vital to demand that these federal monies be spent in ways that will reorient the system toward a more equitable and sustainable future. Taking our cues from the grassroots campaigns happening around the country, we are calling for higher education institutions to use federal funds to provide all of their workers with benefits and a living wage. We demand that higher education prioritize sound investments in research and teaching. And we call for a complete overhaul of tuition and student loans to build a more racially equitable system in which students and families do not have to take on substantial debt. A New Deal for Higher Education would aim to forgive most, if not all, of the $1.57 trillion in student debt that is weighing down our economy and foreclosing life choices for millions of young adults—a disproportionate number of whom are people of color and women.

Developing a Response

We drafted a statement of support for a massive infusion of federal aid to higher education that is coupled with broad principles of reform intended to protect and strengthen our higher education system for the post-COVID-19 world. This is what we called a New Deal for Higher Education:

We need federal legislation that will guarantee that all students from all backgrounds can afford higher education and that our institutions will provide stable employment and living wages for all of their workers. 

We thereby call on the federal government to:

  • Offer federal investment directed mostly at public institutions but also for non-elite not-for-profit private institutions, and those institutions will in turn commit to:
  1. retaining all staff and service workers 
  2. converting contingent teaching positions into full-time long-term employment
  3. extending PhD student funding to account for research time lost to COVID
  4. lowering tuition costs for undergraduate and graduate students, including through a federal incentive program
  • Expand federal student grants for postsecondary education 
  • Relieve existing student debt 

Our initial goal was to secure additional federal stimulus funding during the COVID-19 crisis and tie it to reform. The long-term goal is to help set the agenda for the Biden presidency in which the federal government commits to direct funding of higher education tied to supporting justice, equity, access, and the social and economic security of the university labor force.

We began this work in May 2020 by targeting individuals in higher education and their networks through a petition that gained over 6,500 signatures in a matter of weeks. We also reached out to local and national groups of faculty and staff in higher education and quickly welcomed thirty organizations that signed on, from professional organizations like the American Historical Association, 500 Women Scientists, and the Society for American Music to local union chapters and like-minded higher education reform organizations like Tenure for the Common Good.

The most important outcomes of this early organizing effort were forging new institutional partnerships and expanding our committee. First, we teamed up with the Roosevelt Institute to write a national policy paper in favor of a New Deal for Higher Education. Second, we partnered with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, which agreed to build a national campaign for a New Deal for Higher Education, launched in February 2021. This issue of Academe is one of the elements of that campaign. Third, recognizing that our vision was limited within our small group, we invited people with different kinds of expertise in and experiences of higher education to join us. We expanded our board and have begun developing new components of a reform campaign. Two of our members, for example, are launching a podcast called Collegeland to offer stories about diverse people working in higher education and help the public understand the stakes of the current crisis.

Imagining a Better Future

The time for action in higher education is now. Our vision of reform is broad and responsive to the input of our partners. We believe that if students, faculty, staff, administrators, publishers, service contractors, and the parts of the economy that rely on higher education do not unite to demand bold remedies from the federal government, many public universities—and all but the wealthiest private institutions—will have to close or reduce their offerings. Without quick and decisive action, our remarkable system that was once the envy of the world may cease to meaningfully function—and the possibility of an informed citizenry, with a range of necessary skills to meet the challenges of the future, will fade.

We who teach in our colleges and universities can and should play a vital role in pushing for this reform. We know the people who work in higher education institutions intimately—from those who labor in the classrooms, labs, and cafeterias to the students who learn in lecture halls and libraries. Their insights and demands need to be shared. Scholars can also provide the empirical evidence essential to analyzing why policy changes are necessary and how new ones will operate. But above all scholars should impart what they and colleges and universities have long offered—the ability to see beyond and above the moment at hand. In our quests for a more equitable and sustainable future, we must encourage people to envision new possibilities for higher education in the United States.

To follow and learn more about Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education, visit our website at and follow us on Twitter @sfndhe and on Facebook at To get involved, please write to [email protected].

Lisa Levenstein is professor of history and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Jennifer Mittelstadt is professor of history at Rutgers University.