The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the global and U.S. economies more profoundly than any other event since World War II. Recognizing the urgency of the moment, we have sought advice from leading experts in higher education policy and finance and developed a framework to help state leaders face the crisis.

Cuts in state funding for higher education may be unavoidable, and they will certainly cause harm. However, states should reject the customary approach of cutting “across the board.” If they instead prioritize and fund what works, states can implement effective, longer-term solutions. They can create equitable, accessible, affordable paths to credentials that provide upward economic mobility for the most vulnerable populations.


This study provides a detailed framework to help policymakers make strategic budget decisions. It includes an assessment of states’ economic and policy contexts and applies the following principles:

  1. Prioritize funding for institutions that can best serve Black, Hispanic, Native American, and low-income students and those institutions that help reskill unemployed or underemployed workers.
  2. Increase or reallocate funds to protect and expand need-based financial aid.
  3. Support programs and strategies that advance students’ ability to complete credentials.
  4. Expand resources and invest differently to drive economic growth.
  5. Evaluate and improve system and institutional cost structures.

Each of the principles is described in detail, and each is accompanied by a framework that states should use to examine and improve their practices. Wherever possible, we provide specific examples of what states have done to make progress in a particular area. Recognizing the immediate challenges that state policymakers face, we also highlight a set of essential “first-order” priorities that can guide funding decisions.