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Stimulus package could have great benefit for students

A look at the bare courtyard of GRCC's Main Campus as students and professors will finish out the remainder of the Winter 2020 semester from home (Hayley Babbitt/The Collegiate).

The $2 trillion stimulus package that was just passed by the House could have serious implications for higher education students.

Mike Hansen, President of the Michigan Community College Association, has been working to review directives and legislation regarding education brought forth at the state and federal level. 

“It appears that there is $30 billion that will be set aside for education,” Hansen said. “Roughly, just under half of that, about $14.2 billion for higher education institutions…”

Hansen explained that, should the bill pass, the money will be distributed to colleges and universities through a formula that largely focuses on students who are eligible for Pell Grants. According to Hansen, half of the money will go to students through financial aid and other support services. The other half will be given to the institutions to offset costs incurred as a result of COVID-19. 

It “still remains to be seen” just how long it will be before students and colleges receive this money. Hansen estimates “weeks not days.”  

Individual colleges will be working on determining refunds, if they choose to provide any, for students who are now taking what used to be face-to-face classes online. Hansen said that there is a possibility for refunds through the government. 

“There are some potential financial aid implications about refunds that have to be very carefully thought through and analyzed to make sure it is, in fact, in the best interest of students,” Hansen said. 

There have been petitions and talk about switching to credit/no credit or pass/fail for courses taken this semester. Hansen advises that colleges go about making this decision “carefully.” 

“There are a lot of implications to moving to a credit/no credit, or sometimes referred to as a pass/fail option for students,” Hansen said. “You know, especially those students that want to transfer to a four year institution. Pass/fail will often complicate and potentially jeopardize the transferability of that class. Most universities want to see the letter grade.”

Bill Pink, President of Grand Rapids Community College, is aware of the implications that a credit/no credit system would have and recognizes there is a lot to consider when making a determination. 

“Students have asked us to explore a credit/no credit option because of concerns they have,” Pink stated in an email to The Collegiate. “We’ve heard their voices, and we are taking a very hard look at how this could work, but also the possible implications associated with it with regard to transfer credits and financial aid.”

Administrators at GRCC are taking a critical look at what will be the best option for students. 

“We have been in contact with our four-year partners, and we are hopeful they will be flexible with our students,” Pink stated. “That said, we will be very transparent with each student about the potential implications of this credit, no-credit grades, should they be an option. I’m confident the final version of the temporary grading policy will provide a sense of relief for some of our students, but we want them to make that decision with as much information as possible.

Hansen said that credit/no credit for classes that are prerequisites for a more advanced one are often not approved. Additionally, graduate and specialized programs often do not accept credit/no credit from previous classes. 

However, given the extenuating circumstances, Hansen pointed out there is a possibility for leniency on behalf of universities who usually do not accept pass/fail credits. 

“We’re doing that research right now. We’re dealing with our university partners on those questions,” Hansen said. “I know colleges are working very closely with their transfer partners.” 

GRCC was expected to announce a new policy for grading, exclusive for the Winter 2020 semester, later today. However, it appears as though Brian Knetl, Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, is going to wait a bit longer before releasing that information. 

“During the Student Alliance meeting earlier this week, I shared that additional options for grading for Winter 2020 would be shared with students at some point today,” Knetl stated. “As Academic and Student Affairs were working on the roll out, I decided to hold off just a bit on sharing information broadly until we can work out a few more details. The slight delay will allow us to put more clarity and share around how these options will best serve students.”

GRCC has reported decreased enrollment for the Fall and Winter semesters from 2012 to present. The Winter 2020 semester has a total headcount of 12,586, which is down 430 students from the previous winter. However, it is projected that enrollment may go up. 

“Historically, when the unemployment rate goes up, people return to their community college to increase their skill set so that they can be more marketable in the labor force,” Hansen said. “Colleges need to be ready for this large group of employees who are being currently laid off and have their jobs being eliminated because of the crisis.” 

Because students and professors alike have been “somewhat forced” into converting to online learning, Hansen believes this may change people’s opinion on the formatting of classes.

“The question will be, will that trend continue?” Hansen wondered.  “Will they now realize (professors and students) there are some benefits and advantages to an online format? Or, you know, will the reverse happen and people say, ‘You know what, we tried online and it works for certain situations but when things settle down again we’re going to go back to face-to-face.”

While it’s still unclear just how much influence COVID-19 will have on the way education is viewed and structured, there’s no doubt that it will change learning. 

“There could be very significant, longstanding implications for how we deliver education because of this (pandemic)” Hansen said.

However, according to Hansen, “There’s something unique about a face-to-face experience that will probably never leave the higher education system.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 6:14 p.m. on March 27 to include comments from GRCC administrators. 

This story was updated at 1:35 p.m. on March 27 to reflect the passage of the stimulus bill in the House.