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Our plan to help students in unprecedented times

This op-ed appeared in the Detroit News Saturday, April 18, 2020

COVID-19 has changed everything about our daily routines for learning, working and living. It has hit Michigan particularly hard: We have lost thousands of lives, our economy has been shaken, and our resources are stretched thin. The future is uncertain, and this has posed many challenges for Michigan students and their families.

As I communicate daily with our current and future students, I hear their frustration and fear. They have been separated from their friends and academic support systems as schools moved to remote instruction. Their important milestones, such as graduation events, have been canceled. They are afraid of what they hear on the news. Many have friends or loved ones who have been infected and even passed away due to this virus.

Many suffer from the additional anxieties of financial uncertainty. Their families are struggling and will likely continue to face significant financial hardship in the months ahead. Some students who depend on wages from part- or full-time jobs to pay for school have lost those jobs as a result of temporary business closures. Many of their parents have been laid off or furloughed, and still others are concerned that they soon may be as well. More than 1 million Michigan residents have now filed for unemployment — the largest number in our state’s history.

Our students and their families are hurting, and we feel their pain. As a university president and the parent of a first-year student, I share it, too. And I want them to know that as they face these hardships and uncertainties, they are not alone.

Central Michigan University’s culture is based on caring for and supporting our students as we serve our community. It is grounded in our promise of affordability, access and value. Our commitment is to our stakeholders — the students, families and communities of the great state of Michigan — and is embedded in supporting economic growth and prosperity. This is our mission, and to achieve it, we will do everything we can to keep a CMU education within reach for our students.

This week, we announced plans to freeze undergraduate tuition rates to give families more stability as they plan for the future. We are increasing the amount of need-based aid and scholarships we offer. We have tied our merit scholarships to a percentage of tuition instead of a specific dollar amount — again, giving families more certainty as they plan and pay for college. We’re offering deferred payment options and flexible payment plans for students; we will not charge late fees that would otherwise prevent students from registering for future classes.

We also will guarantee on-campus employment to any first-year student who wants — or needs — to work while attending classes. I look forward to working with our community partners and local businesses to provide flexible employment options for our students as well. We are committed to breaking down barriers that may prevent a student from pursuing their academic goals. This will benefit them now, and it has the potential to benefit us all.

Since the Great Recession, our leaders have been seeking ways to regain our state’s economic prosperity — a quest that should not stop as a result of COVID-19. There are many important steps we all can take now to remain on the path to economic success. Developing an educated, capable workforce is an important first step in attracting new businesses, improving job outlook and building stronger communities.

Higher education has the power to positively transform lives and the future of our state, but only if we keep it within reach of those who seek it. If we wish to guarantee a bright future for Michigan communities, we must ensure every student is able to pursue the education and training they need. The COVID-19 crisis has shown how strong we are when united by a good cause. Let’s remain united and continue to invest in Michigan’s students, families and future.