April 3, 2020
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act sends nearly $14 billion to the nation’s colleges and universities, with 50% of that money required to go to students and three-quarters of that to Pell Grant recipients, who have the greatest financial need.
As a college and university president for 25 years and a consultant to boards and presidents for 12, I’ve been fascinated by how colleges initially dealt with sending home students who have paid for room and board for the semester.
Some relied on legalities, saying their residence-hall contracts didn’t require refunds. Some said they would return part of the room-and-board fees.
Others said they would give a credit for next fall. And some created formulas that excluded students’ grants or scholarships.
Unfortunately, schools that did not remit all the costs as soon as possible hurt the poorest students the most, the ones with parents who are working low-paying jobs and are most vulnerable to being laid off.
Columbia College, like all colleges and universities, had to make tough decisions about refunds quickly and with little information.
In times of crisis, organizations rely on heritage, ethos and core values. Such was the case with our administration and board of trustees.
We focused on the 1854 founding motto of Columbia College, Non quem, sed quid (not who, but what). At the time, it was meant to proclaim that your family or status didn’t matter; what mattered was what you were as a person. Your intellect, integrity, faith and character mattered most.
Based on the core value of non quem sed quid, the board agreed to refund 100% of all room-and-board charges, prorated to the time students moved out of the dorm, and to send a check as soon as possible.
We knew family finances of our students, especially those who receive Pell Grants, were fragile at best. We also knew what mattered most was that fundamental fairness and compassion should serve as our guiding principles.
We use the phrase “You can tell a Columbia College graduate, but you can’t tell them much” as a facetious way to highlight their independence.
In reality, that phrase captures the ethos and culture of our 166-year history. “Not who, but what” defined our student body and our college in 1854 and will enable Columbia College and its students to weather the challenges of COVID-19 in 2020.
PETER T. MITCHELL
President, Columbia College
Columbia College Drive
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