Colleges and universities across the United States have been offered federal funding in an effort to mitigate millions of dollars in lost revenue as a result of COVID-19. Columbia has yet to confirm if it will accept its $12.8 million allotment, which was the highest amount given to an Ivy League institution, alongside Cornell. The size of the allocation is likely due to the high percentage of full-time undergraduate students at the School of General Studies who receive the Pell Grant, a federal grant for students who demonstrate the highest need in the country, which was a significant factor in deciding school allocations.
Taking into account Columbia’s unique position as an elite institution located in an epicenter of the pandemic, and its relatively small endowment in comparison with other Ivy League institutions, should Columbia accept its $12.8 million allotment? And if it does, what should it do with the funding?
Given the exceptional circumstance of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m in favor of Columbia University accepting $12.8 million in federal aid from the coronavirus relief bill.
I believe that much of the criticism aimed at Columbia for considering federal aid stems from misconceptions about the University’s financial situation. At $10.9 billion, Columbia’s endowment is one of the largest in the nation. But this isn’t a particularly relevant figure when responding to an immediate crisis such as COVID-19. Instead, we should look at the annual returns reported by the Columbia Investment Management Company, which is more relevant to Columbia’s regular spending. For the 2018-2019 fiscal year, there was a 3.8 percent return on investment, the worst return for an Ivy League institution by far.
Aside from a relatively weak return on investment, it’s also relevant to mention how endowments are generally used. The widely accepted practice among institutions of higher education is to cap spending of endowment returns at about 5 percent. In other words, the endowment isn’t a rainy-day fund, but a group of assets ensuring the long-term survival of Columbia. They are to be used sparingly precisely because the future is uncertain. Few would’ve predicted the interruptions we’ve experienced across the globe this year; nobody can predict the scale of financial disaster on our horizon. Most importantly, revenue from the endowment is directly correlated with the University’s ability to provide financial aid.
More than its other private, well-endowed peers, Columbia's geographic location in New York City has led it to take up the mantle of civic duty. This isn’t to minimize the impact of COVID-19 across the nation, but the death toll doesn’t lie: New York City has been hit worse than anywhere else in the world. It remains impossible to predict how long Columbia will continue diverting resources to aid the city’s fight against the viral spread.
It’s also important to mention that Columbia’s student body is exceptionally vulnerable to the ramifications of the virus. Compared to other institutions of similar wealth, Columbia has a significant number of students qualifying for Pell Grants: 16 percent at CC and SEAS, and about 40 percent of students at the School of General Studies. Moreover, Columbia boasts the fourth-highest enrollment of international students nationwide.
The events of the pandemic show that the brunt of suffering will fall on a few prominent groups: low-income individuals, such as those who qualify for Pell Grants, international students facing travel restrictions and visa complications, and graduate students left to continue paying their rent despite cuts in paid work hours.
To those who think it is righteous for Columbia to forfeit federal aid, for once I ask you to give our University the benefit of the doubt. Columbia is facing enormous strain, and there is such tangible need within our community, from unexpected travel costs to financial aid to funding for medical research. We should support the University if it means protecting our most-impacted community members.
Jacob Mazzarella is a political science major in the School of General Studies.
Sidwell Friends School, an elite private school boasting an endowment of about $50 million (as well as at least a few alumni at Columbia), recently garnered controversy for receiving COVID-19 relief funding under the Paycheck Protection Program. Meanwhile, minority-owned small businesses struggle to access the same funding that would keep themselves afloat, desperately applying to a lending program that has already run out of money. Thus, the debate over whether well-resourced and well-connected institutions such as Columbia should accept federal coronavirus-aid money is a question of fundamental fairness and equity.
The situation in higher education is slightly different; the $12.8 million that Columbia is slated to receive was automatically prescribed under the coronavirus rescue packages’ criteria, so Columbia did not actively seek to reduce the amount available to smaller institutions because it did not apply for these funds (as private high schools have). Regardless, other elite universities have announced that they would not be accepting the aid money, often using language couched in fairness. For instance, Stanford’s statement turning down the relief funding acknowledges that while Stanford would suffer financially under the pandemic, COVID-19 constitutes an actual “existential threat” for smaller schools.
This type of judgment is especially necessary in these times on both individual and institutional levels; we should ask ourselves what resources and relief we really need and what could be given to others who might need it more. After all, the community colleges, public universities, and smaller institutions that collectively do most of the work in higher education with fewer resources per capita might not even make it through this crisis.
Thus, Columbia should look critically at whether accepting this money is necessary, weighing it against the resources that we already have access to. Does this crisis pose an “existential threat” to the University? Or, can we mobilize our existing capacity to financially support students and staff (which, by the way, should include waiving graduate students’ rent and supporting undocumented students neglected by the relief bill)? There may be unique factors, such as restrictions on how the endowment can be spent (like on staff salaries), the disproportionate impact of being located in the virus’s epicenter, and the presence of General Studies, which has higher student financial need and no equivalent at other Ivies. However, with the massive wealth of this institution, I would venture to say that we can.
Brandon Shi is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in economics-political science and concentrating in ethnicity and race studies.
It is no surprise that, like Columbia, every college across the United States has been hit hard by the coronavirus. However, these impacts have not been proportionate. The coronavirus aid bill, aiming to provide financial relief to colleges across the United States, has offered Columbia a $12.8 million allotment to put toward coronavirus aid. Already, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford have turned down their federal aid with the intention of leaving the money for institutions with greater demand for support due to their economic insecurity. On the other hand, Cornell—tied with Columbia for the largest fund—has accepted and promised to put all of the money, rather than the mandated 50 percent, toward emergency financial aid for students. Now, do we follow the footsteps of many other Ivies and reject the aid? Or do we mirror the other New York Ivy and accept it?
Normally, without hesitation, I would say that the University should reject the allotment. Columbia has extensive resources at its disposal. To privilege Columbia over other universities with fewer resources is to potentially bankrupt smaller colleges. Yet, Columbia has a unique relationship with COVID-19: Many of its students and doctors are on the ground fighting the pandemic. The CARES Act has no instructions on how a college should allocate funds for direct coronavirus abatement efforts. If that were possible, the potential benefits of increased financial support to Columbia’s first responders and medical heroes are simply more time-sensitive than the need for colleges to get supplemental federal aid. Columbia has already transformed our athletic field into a hospital, runs additional medical centers, and is utilizing technology such as 3D-printers to make face masks. Additional funding to some of these efforts could be life-saving.
There is one small, semantic issue with the suggested allocation of funds: The funds must be used to address “significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus.” It certainly can be argued that the early graduation and forced entry into the medical workplace of medical students is a “significant change to the delivery of instruction.” It can also be said that a donation to any institution beyond the medical school, such as the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, would be outside the restrictions of the relief bill.
It is near impossible to provide a clear answer given the ambiguity of this legislation. But if it were possible to utilize this money to aid the unique battle Columbia doctors and health workers are fighting, I’d be the first to advocate that the money should go to them. If not, Columbia should follow in the footsteps of schools like Harvard and allow colleges in more financially dire situations to receive the support they need.
Brian Siegel is a sophomore at Columbia College studying sustainable development and computer science.
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