The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many realities about the critical infrastructure in this country, including the vital role of higher education in long-term recovery. Institutions of higher education play important economic and sociopolitical roles at the local, state, and national level. As economic anchors and vehicles for social mobility, institutions of higher education should be acknowledged as critical infrastructure. Technically, critical infrastructure refers to “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.”
The federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency classifies sixteen critical infrastructure sectors – excluding higher education but including the Commercial Facilities Sector, “which includes a diverse range of sites that draw large crowds of people for shopping, business, entertainment, or lodging.” The Commercial Facilities Sector surely facilitates sufficient economic activity that its incapacitation would have a debilitating impact on national economic security – but so does higher education. In addition to educating a workforce to meet the demands of employers, higher education has a significant economic impact through direct and induced spending.
In Connecticut, the CT Conference on Independent Colleges (CCIC), CT State Colleges & Universities (CSCU), and the University of Connecticut (UConn) represent thirty-three of the state’s institutions of higher education. The CCIC calculated its annual economic impact in 2019 to be $15,438,586,495. The $15.5 billion includes $9,445,900,591 of “direct” spending by the university and its students, employees, and visitors and $5,992,685,904 of “induced” spending, for example, local businesses that must hire additional workers when school is in session (who then must purchase more goods and services in the area…) CSCU calculated its economic impact at $11.1 billion in fiscal year 2016-17. UConn, CT’s flagship university, boasted an economic impact of $5.3 billion in 2020.
Further, institutions of higher education enable CT to meet its employers’ significant demand for highly-credentialed employees. The education-based nonprofit Lumina Foundation finds that, by 2025, 60% of Americans will require some type of high-quality credential beyond high school. In CT, 57.1% of residents possess such a level of educational attainment – this surpasses the national average of 51.9%. In the interest of remaining competitive, CT aims for 70% of its residents to attain a postsecondary credential by 2025. As a necessity to the continuing operations of the national economy, higher education plays an important role as a critical infrastructure.
Higher education also plays an important sociopolitical role. Besides building community through sports and performing arts, providing expertise for state and local government, and supplying an intrinsic good to people, the higher education sector offers a means for social mobility. The traditional ideal of higher education involves equalizing opportunities among students from high- and low-income families – this doesn’t always happen, and rising costs associated with postsecondary education are a real problem – but, in a merit-based system, “postsecondary schooling is a filter that keeps parents’ economic position from simply passing straight through to their children.” A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019 demonstrates that educational attainment makes a significant difference in earnings: those who have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher earn almost 81% more, on average, than those who have only attained a high school diploma. At the fundamental level, institutions of higher education are structured to promote social mobility.
Further, colleges and universities can play an important role in recovery from disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions of higher education in CT conducted over a million COVID-19 tests in academic year 2020-21. The University of Hartford even provided free housing to 200 first responders amid the pandemic. Institutions of higher education are uniquely positioned to convene and engage stakeholders in the community. Under contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University was able to engage institutions of higher education in Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire to support long-term recovery efforts. In CT, working groups involving representatives of higher education, the State of CT, and FEMA cooperated to find ways that colleges and universities could support sectors including k-12, public health, and workforce development. The pandemic has affected the most vulnerable demographics in this country disproportionally; the higher education sector’s ability to support recovery efforts corresponds directly with higher education’s capacity to promote social mobility.
The Information Technology Sector is classified as critical infrastructure because the sector is “central to the nation’s security, economy, and public health and safety as businesses, governments, academia, and private citizens are increasingly dependent upon Information Technology Sector functions.” When six out of ten jobs require some sort of higher education, businesses can be described as “dependent” on the functions of higher education. When Americans can expect to earn 61% more as college graduates – and this can be the difference between a wage that is livable and a one that is not – private citizens can be described as “dependent” on the higher education sector.
The reality is: it’s 2021 and a high school education isn’t enough for the majority of Americans to earn a livable wage – higher education is a critical infrastructure and an important part of long-term recovery from COVID-19. President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure legislation allocates $12 billion over eight years to updating infrastructure in community colleges. “One thing that strikes you when you look at the summary the Biden folks put out is just the number of ways higher education serves in the recovery,” said Jon Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, noting that the impressive commitment to higher education “demonstrates how inextricably linked colleges and universities are to the health of our economy.” As America continues its evolution into the 21st century, the higher education sector should be recognized as critical infrastructure.