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As our nation struggles to fight the spread of COVID-19, Congress has authorized relief to individuals, families, and businesses with a $2 trillion stimulus known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. A portion of the stimulus, approximately $14 billion, will support higher education. As colleges and universities grapple with the costs associated with serving students remotely, and students face uncertain financial futures, I applaud Congress for providing this desperately needed relief.

As the president of Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU), a private, Catholic institution, I am grateful our government representatives recognize the need to support higher education, especially private schools that serve millions of low-income students. Unlike public universities, private institutions do not have state funding to fall back on. We rely on tight, annual budgets to educate our students, and we do excellent work with our limited resources.

At private schools, 54 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients completed their education in four years, while 37 percent earned their degrees over the same time at public universities.

While my fellow college presidents and I are thankful for the $14 billion stimulus, we recognize the large need that remains. Across the country we have closed campuses, transitioned to distance learning, and are spending more than $1 billion in housing refunds. According to the Dallas Business Journal, Texas Christian University will return $28.8 million in room and board to students, Southern Methodist University $16.6 million, Baylor $13.5 million. There are more than 2,000 four-year institutions in the U.S. offering bachelor’s or higher degree level programs. It appears most are refunding room and board. The numbers add up.

Adding to the losses, colleges are losing billions of dollars from the cancellation of athletic competitions and the closure of bookstores, cafeterias, and other campus enterprises. In addition, many private universities are continuing to pay work-study students who can no longer work but cannot afford to lose the income. Finally, given the financial challenges faced by our students from predominantly low-income families, we anticipate they will need to weigh the decision to re-enroll next academic year against the needs of their families. This could cause a significant loss in revenue. The need is overwhelming, especially for low-income learners.

While I extend my thanks to Congress for investing in students – the future leaders of America – I call on our representatives to ensure that private colleges and universities receive a fair share of the relief package. Those of us who lead private schools, especially need: emergency aid for students whose families are likely to be suffering from unemployment; funding to replace lost revenue; and funding that will help colleges and universities with urgently needed infrastructure (brick and mortar and technological) that cannot be attained due to lost revenue.

Students are facing hardships that could impact them for years. At OLLU, nearly 60 percent of our undergraduates receive Pell Grants, 57 percent are low-income students, and 43 percent are first generation college students. Many of these students and their families face crippling, financial hardships, and many are at risk of losing their jobs due to the economic disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, OLLU and other institutions have continued to serve students by providing remote access to libraries, tutoring, writing and math centers, counseling, health and other services. These services have resulted in unexpected expenses. Most schools are major employers in our communities. At OLLU, we have 422 full-time employees whose jobs we are trying to protect.

The challenges are daunting. With direct investment from Congress, we can continue to serve our students and empower them to become the future leaders who will carry our nation forward.

Diane E. Melby

Diane E. Melby

Diane E. Melby is the president of Our Lady of the Lake University.